Tag Archives: vocabulary

Retronyms: We Only Get ‘Em When We Need ‘Em

I learned a new word this weekend. Retronym. For me, learning new words is simultaneously exciting and depressing; exciting because it’s something new, but depressing because it serves to remind me of how much I don’t know. If my vocabulary were to be measurable and I turned out to have a 60,000 word lexicon, you can bet your life I’d be miserable that it wasn’t 60,001. And if I learned a new word, I’d be equally bummed that I didn’t have 60,002.

My psychological issues aside, the word retronym is also fascinating to me because it serves to describe a phenomenon that we all know and use but without actually knowing the word to describe it!

Back in the 1970’s, when phones were not smart and coffee was not decaffeinated, clever inventors at the Hamilton Watch Company designed a new timepiece that eschewed such primitive things as “hands” and “winders” in favor of a using something called light-emitting diodes that would light up and show numbers. Imagine that – actual light-up numbers! So instead of learning that “the little hand is between the 2 and the 3, and the big hand is on the 30, so it must be two-thirty,” you just saw a 2 and a 30 and said. Two-thirty.” Brilliant!

This became the first ever digital watch. and it was called that to distinguish it from the original watch. But the next thing to happen was the use of the new compound analog watch as a way of being more specific about the difference between the two timepieces. Analog watch thus becomes an example of a retronym; a word that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “a neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous.” Clearly there was no need for this word prior to its coinage because all we had was a watch [1]. Digital watches became cheaper and cooler to the point that it was pretty naff [2] not to have one.

Digital LED watch

Is this cool of what?

Of course, like all such fashion accessories, they eventually became so ubiquitous that folks began to stop wearing them in favor of analog watches – what we used to call watches but can now also be called analog watches to distinguish them from digital. I for one love my Accurist MS832Y Chronograph and always recommend that a dude should have at least one real watch in his collection of fashion accessories.

Accurist watch

Real watch

But now we have the smart watch. Here’s another retronym we now need because it contrasts with the previous stupid watches; you know, the ones that only tell you the time – duh!

In general, technological advances are a spur to the creation of retronyms. I have a wired headset and a bluetooth headset (I used to just have a headset) to listen to music from my wireless radio or my satellite radio (we used to have radios); I see both American football on TV and European football (because we used to just have football until the Americans decided to use it for their version of rugby with padding), and get calls on my landline phone as well as my cell phone (all phones were landlines 40 years ago); and I prefer to read paper books (thought more people now read e-books) and avoid non-alcoholic beer (because we all used to drink just a beer). Fortunately we don’t yet have a retronym for non-alcoholic beer as there seems to be no ambiguity about it.

As you can see, a retronym is typically a compound noun where the original noun is preceded by an adjective or noun that modifies it. The word e-book is a step ahead of other retronyms in that the full form, electronic book, has quickly been shortened to the e– prefix [3], as have many other electronic devices such as the e-cigarette, e-mail, and perhaps e-learning. However, only e-mail seems to have gained any real traction as a “real” word, with hopeful monsters such as e-zine, e-banking, and e-reader still left struggling for acceptance.

Just for completeness, the original word from which a retronym is derived can be called a protonym. So e-book is the new word (or neologism), paper book is the retronym, and book is the protonym. Similarly ballpoint pen was a new word, with the retronym being fountain pen, and pen the protonym.

Learning a retronym is also another lesson in aging. Most frequently, the retronym represents something that is on the way out or outmoded. I guess that’s why I cling so dearly to my paper books.

[1] The first watches were designed to be carried on a chain and kept in a pocket. Then when a watch was designed to be worn of the wrist, we suddenly found we had a wristwatch and a pocket watch. But in this specific case, eventually the word wrist was dropped from the new word, leaving us with a watch and a pocket watch. The word watch was originally a protonym for a timepiece you kept in your pocket, but it became a protonym for a timepiece you have on your wrist. Essentially, it changed its meaning. So we didn’t see the new word *digital wristwatch versus *analog wristwatch but digital watch and analog watch.  Well, at least I find that interesting ;)

[2] The British English word naff is relatively recent (1960s) but of uncertain origin. It means, “unfashionable, vulgar; lacking in style, inept; worthless, faulty.” The phrases “Naff off” or “Naff all” are euphemisms for “Fuck off” and “Fuck all” and may be a nod toward one suggested origin of naff as being Polari slang for “Normal As Fuck,” but this is hard to substantiate. And Polari is “A form of slang incorporating Italianate words, rhyming slang, cant terms, and other elements of vocabulary, which originated in England in the 18th and 19th centuries as a kind of secret language within various groups, including sailors, vagrants, circus people, entertainers, etc.” It was used extensively by the gay community of London in the 1950s and 1960s but has pretty much faded out now.

[3] The modern e-prefix is a shortened form of the word electronic. The older e-prefix (as in eject, egress, eviscerate) comes from Latin and means “out of,” “from,” “without,” or “former.”

In Defense of the Grammar Nazi

Watching television is often a complete waste of time and a total abdication of Life. I admit that I suffer from anguish, shame, and guilt if I’ve just spent three hours viewing re-runs of Family Guy, Frasier, and Bar Rescue, so I’m as guilty as the rest of the world when it comes to Couch Potato Syndrome [1].

Nevertheless, if you try really hard, you can turn your sin into a virtue by questioning what you’re seeing and thinking about how it applies to what you should be doing instead. And one of my more recent observations has been in relation to attitudes towards “skills” and “expertise.” So let’s start with one of my favorite gripes – the Celebrity Chef.


Chef: Fuurin Kazan Chef in Black and White (http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/444939001/) / CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

Americans in general seem to love watching people in conflict. I dare say that almost every “reality show” is predicated on the need to see people fighting while trying to live on an island, etching tattoos, singing, dancing, or even, for goodness sake, baking a cake! (“You’re going down, punk, when I whip your ass with this amazing fondue!”) The more spiteful and bitter the contestants, the better the ratings. Rome had the Coliseum with gladiators and Christians; we have cable TV with hosts and contestants.

But what all of these shows include is the Expert who exemplifies the target skill; the master who can turn something mundane and mindless into a work of sheer brilliance. Celebrity Chefs are such people. For them, the difference between a winning dish and one that has them vomiting into a bucket is whether the cook added two bay leaves or three.  And woe betide anyone who should cook a steak for 3 seconds too long – because there lies the way to the door. Fundamentally, the message that is being sold to us here is that the fine attention to minuscule details is what make a chef a great chef.

And we all sort of accept that.

Meanwhile, over in the sports arena, the same message is being played, except that the skill here is seen in the slightest of motions and the briefest of actions. In golf, putting just an inch too short of the hole is a miss that could have been avoided if just the merest of extra effort had gone into hit. In swimming, that last kick while extending the finger tips to touch the wall is the difference between a gold medal and nothing. In baseball, a two degree extra angle when the batter hits the ball can mean the difference between a World Series and a long, quiet flight home. And in basketball, that extra tap to push the ball an extra inch over the edge of the hoop can turn a player from good to legendary.

And we all sort of accept this.

Now consider the reaction at work I get when someone says, “So which of these two designs is the best?” and I reply with, “Er, better. It’s the comparative, not the superlative. If we had three choices, we could have a best.” Does this “attention to detail” come across as acceptable? Is this modest defense of some sort of standard seen as the equivalent of Gordon Ramsey tossing a whole plate of food into the trash because the color of the scallop is browner than he thinks tolerable? [2]

Nope. Any attempt at being precise in the use of language is seen instantly as nothing more than bourgeois pedantry, trivial snobbery, or the action of a Grammar Nazi [3]. Just take a look at any discussion thread on the Internet related to some issue of language use and within six or seven responses the level of argument will have dropped to name calling and attacks on anyone who tries to be in any way linguistically precise. There’s a good chance that even you, dear reader, are already feeling the pressure to trot out the “But language is always changing” argument in defense of anyone who seems to be having a hard time using their first language as their first language! When Sarah Palin used the word “refudiate,” rather than ‘fess up that she’d made a mistake, she actually tried to argue that she was no different from Shakespeare who “liked to make up words!” Sarah Palin as Shakespeare! And George W. Bush was the new Cicero.

Now before some of you have collective heart attacks and click repeatedly on the “Comments” button, let me be clear that I am NOT suggesting that everyone has to talk proper, avoid splitting infinitives, never use “their” when “there” is the right word, avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, or stab themselves in the eye if they say “irregardless.” No, we know that oral language is frequently dysfluent, peppered with errors, given to jumping from topic to topic, and studded with words whose meanings can be slippier than a bucket of eels in olive oil. And written language can be similarly dotted with misarticulations (“nyoo kyoo luh” for nuclear anyone?), spelling mistakes, wandering apostrophes, malapropisms [4], and just plain unreadable rubbish.

Where the disjunct appears is that while people will accept a Ramsey tantrum to defend standards in cookery, a Simon Cowell insult in defense of musical talent, or Tyra Banks tossing out some poor unfortunate judged not good enough to be America’s Next Top Model, they see no value whatsoever in the idea that there may be some standards in the use of the English language.

A big part of why this happens is that we are all, in our own heads, experts at language. After all, we’ve been speaking it all our lives so we must be experts. So how dare some self-appointed, smug-faced, pedantic, “no-life” critic tell ME that I used the wrong word… or can’t spell… or know my own language.

It’s a manifestation of the well-known difference between knowing a language and knowing about a language. And knowing about language is not regarded as a skill or expertise in the same way that knowing about cookery, golf, basketball, singing, tattooing, baking cakes, surviving on an island, or any other such endeavor is viewed.

In a recent post at Gizmodo, Casey Chain pointed out that Google’s definition of the word literally now includes the following definition:

Used to acknowledge something that is not literally true but is used for emphasis or to indicate strong feeling

Words do, of course, change meaning over time – less than 40 years ago being gay had nothing to do with sexuality – but there is nothing “pedantic” or “petty” about taking a stand to prefer one definition over another. In fact, the failure to try to preserve a word’s meaning can lead to it being totally hijacked by special interest groups.  Take the word socialized as in “socialized medicine.” Here’s a word that has been used particularly by the political right because it sounds close to socialist and serves to taint the very concept of “free health care” as being somehow close to communism – and you don’t support communism, do you? Listen to any Talk Radio show and you’ll hear it being used in the pejorative sense by all right-wing commentators, whereas left-wingers are more likely to talk about “affordable health care” or just “health care.” It’s a good example of where allowing a word’s meaning to change ends up with it becoming pejorative; like gay, or queen, or fag – all of which have slid from having a non-pejorative, non-sexual meaning to become almost taboo [5].

So unfashionable as it may be to talk about things such as “standards” and “norms,” it is possible to be fully aware of the evolutionary nature of language while at the same time taking some effort to protect some of the features that keep the system rich and fascinating without letting it degenerate into an “anything goes” mish-mash of rough words strung loosely together with no thought for the comprehensibility, flow, phrasing, and even beauty of language.

And after all;

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

[1] The saddest and most soul-destroying conclusion that one can come to is that it’s not just the watching of TV shows that is pointless but that one is watching the same thing over and over! With an average four-score years and ten alloted to our miserable time on the earth, depression can really set in when you realize that this is the tenth time you’ve seen Peter Griffin try to flip a dead frog out of the window, and it’s still funny. I guess when I’m lying on my death-bed about to croak, I’ll think, “Gee, if I’d only skipped those re-runs I’d have another few years to live.”

[2] Even the term “Grammar Nazi” itself illustrates the negative regard people have toward those who want to pay attention to those details that make language special and interesting. A Google search for the phrase turns up over 2 million instances, and Wikipedia provides the definition, “A Grammar Nazi is a common term used on the internet and on social websites for an individual noticing a grammatical mistake and correcting obsessively. ‘Grammar Nazis’ usually correct any punctuation or spelling errors they find in a comment or post. British comedians Mitchell and Webb have an interesting take on the Grammar Nazi.

[3] It seems to be de rigueur for celebrity chefs to be loud mouthed and arrogant, so much so that contestants in cookery contests appear to have developed these qualities before actually learning to cook. Thus the pleasure in watching these types of show is as much about seeing pride going before a fall as it is about having any genuine interest in a winner.

[4] A malapropism is where someone uses a wrong word that is phonetically  similar to the intended one. Examples of malapropisms would included “Magellan circumvented the world” for circumnavigated; “He was wearing a turbine on his head” instead of turban; and “When a baby’s born you have to cut the biblical cord” instead of umbilical.

[5] For those curious, the word gay appears to have taken on its meaning of homosexual in the 1920’s. At the end of the 1700’s it was used as a euphemism to describe a female prostitute – a “gay lady.” Queen was first used as slang to refer to male homosexuals way back in 1729 (“Where have you been you saucy Queen? If I catch you Strouling and Caterwauling, I’ll beat the Milk out of your Breasts I will so.” From the book Hell upon earth: or the town in an uproar. Occasion’d by the late horrible scenes of forgery, perjury, street-robbery, murder, sodomy, and other shocking impieties.) Finally, fag (or faggot) comes from US slang in the early 1920’s, most likely by way of its use of a term of abuse for a woman in the 1840’s.

Small Object of Desire: The Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen – and Keyword Vocabulary

Those who follow the Speech Dudes on Twitter (@speechdudes) may recall a mysterious tweet from December 28th, 2012, that referred to something called the Monteverde Invincia fountain pen.

Tweet from DecemberAnd those who are regular readers of this blog may vaguely recall that one of the Dudes has a passion for pens that marks him out as being either very old-fashioned, slightly quirky, or perhaps requiring of medication. But the Invincia is a pen of such style, charm, and delicious darkness that I’m guessing at least one of you out there will be ponying up the $75 just to get one of these wonderful objects of desire in your hand. Literally.

Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen

Monteverde Invincia Stylus

But first, because this is, after all, a blog written by SLP’s for other SLP’s, educators, language lovers, and all moms and dads with a curious bent, let’s talk a little bit about vocabulary.

In the field of augmentative and alternative communication, where the Dudes earn their daily crusts, it’s common to talk about words as being either core or fringe. Actually, up until five years ago, it wasn’t always that common but the proliferation of apps for tablets has seen the words core and fringe become almost essential to the marketing blurb of any of these apps – whether or not it’s true. Just tossing the words out doesn’t make an app a good communication tool, nor does copying what other folks have done and dropping it into a few pages make it any better. No, app creators need to learn what the words really mean before using them as sales jargon [1].

But if you are serious about creating a word-based solution, you can use the following definitions to help you in your quest:

Core Word: A word with a high frequency-of-use value that is also what you might expect to see statistically when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

Fringe Word: A word with a low frequency-of-use value that is also what you might expect to see statistically when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

Keyword: A word that has a higher frequency-of-use than what you might statistically expect when you compare it to a large reference corpus.

You’ll notice that I have purposely defined these as statistical phenomena and not as actual words that may be referred to as “useful,” “necessary,” “essential,” “uncommon,” or any other such subjectively nuanced adjectives. You’ve hopefully also picked up on the notion that there needs to be a “reference corpus” of some sort. The best reference corpus I suggest is one I like to call “the English language” because that is the thing that we all need to use in order to communicate with one another. So using the Corpus of Contemporary American or the British National Corpus is fair game. And when it comes to core vocabulary, you’ll find that even if you look at the small vocabulary lists that have been collected in the AAC field from different age group across different situations, you’ll find the same words are common to all [2].

If you’re already working in AAC, you may not be familiar with the use of the term keyword but it’s taken from the world of Corpus Linguistics and I find it a very useful concept to apply. For example, in the world of education, when folks talk about “core words” in relation to Core Communication Standards, they are really talking about keywords; the word vertex is a “core word” in math but is a keyword from an AAC perspective.

Keywords are words which are significantly more frequent in a sample of text than would be expected, given their frequency in a large general reference corpus. (Stubbs, 2010) [3]

So, let’s go back to my encomium [4] on the Monteverde Invicia Stylus pen and see what we can learn about core words, fringe words, and keywords.

The first thing is that the world of pens and paper has specialized vocabulary – or more specifically uses some words in specialized ways. This would be keyword vocabulary within the domain of “Fine Writing.” Thus, the word nib is statistically a fringe word when compared to a general vocabulary but becomes a keyword within the context of discussing fountain pens. In essence, keywords are typically domain-specific items and a sub-set of fringe.

To give you a feel for what keywords you might find, I did a quick(ish) analysis based on a 10,000 word corpus created from a popular blog about fountain pens and their use. Using WordSmith 6 software, I created a word list based on the text from the blog, then used the KeyWord facility to determine the top 2o keywords in the sample i.e. those words that were being used statistically more than you might expect when compared with a standard reference (and in this case, my standard reference is the British National Corpus).

The following “league table” illustrated keyword vocabulary in the domain of Fine Writing.

Keywords "Fine Writing"

Keywords “Fine Writing”

The words fountain and pen appear separately but when you look at the concordance data, the two actually appear typically as fountain pen, so I wouldn’t regard fountain itself a keyword – the keyword is the compound noun, fountain pen.  If I’d taken a few more minutes, I could have put the singular and plural forms together so we wouldn’t see separate entries for pen(s), ink(s), cartridge(s), converter(s), and color(s).

Knowing about such keyword vocabulary is, in fact, very useful. My enthusiasm for my new pen can be explained to you much more succinctly if I can use the keywords. For example, I recommend that if you want one of these pens, you are better off with the medium-sized nib because that will spread the ink out to facilitate clearly writing. Furthermore, since one of the great features of the pen is that it includes both a cartridge and a converter, knowing the words cartridge and converter is helpful! If I then explain that a converter is a small barrel that you can use to suck up ink from an ink bottle, you now know that by buying different inks you can choose which ink colors you’d like to have.

Vocabulary lesson aside, the pen is indeed a stylish addition to anyone’s fashion accessories. Its brushed metal, matt-black finish and fine ribbing give it a distinctive appearance with a hi-tech accent. Its darkness is reinforced by having a shiny black stainless-steel nib, which makes it look like the sort of pen Darth Vader might have used to sign the order authorizing the construction of the Death Star (“You don’t know the power of the Dark Side!”) or that Batman has somewhere on his utility belt (“Quick Robin, use the BatPen!”)

Pen showing internal converter

Pen showing internal converter

It writes smoothly and has the merest hint of a squeak as it glides across paper, which is not a bad thing in the world of fountain pens. It’s classed as a heavy pen (1.4 oz. or 4.0 grams) and so has a much more solid feel than some cheap, plastic ballpoint.

Monteverde Invincia Stylus fountain pen nib

Even the nib is black!

To boost its hi-tech credentials even more, the cap is tipped with conductive rubber so it can be used with a capacitive touchscreen; in short, you can write on your favorite tablet device! I’ve tested it with the Galaxy Tab 7″ display, the 10″ display model (my favorite), the iPad 3 ,  a Motorola Droid 3, Microsoft Surface, and all have worked just fine.

Conductive rubber tip

Conductive rubber tip

There is a white version of the pen available but that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s the blackness that makes it sharp! And with a retail price of $95, it may sound steep to those who are new to the world of fountain pens. But you can get it from Amazon for $75, and other Internet sources are quoting $65, so there are deals to be had.

Long term, there are lots of different inks to choose from. Monteverde offer a range of inks but you should check out Glenn’s Pens where there is a good article on Fountain Pen Ink along with a dizzying array of brands and color options [5]. Another great resource is The Goulet Pen Company, where you’ll also find videos related to pens and paper.

Oh, and it you do buy the pen, drop us a note – then we know who we won’t be able to impress by whipping out our Invicia’s!

[1] And while we’re at it, there is a special place in the nine circles of Hell (possibly the 8th) reserved for anyone who claims their app is “intuitive,” “ground-breaking,” or, heaven forbid, “game changing.” If it takes me fifteen minutes and four or five keystrokes to find a word like already, and if there is no way for me to actually find it other than hitting key after key after key until  I stumble across it, you have NO right to talk about “intuitive,” “ground breaking,” or “game changing” – unless the “change” in question is to set AAC back 10 years by providing sub-par sops that do nothing more than provide a 10-minute solution that then requires hours and hours of fiddling to add all the stuff that was missing in the first place.

Just sayin’…

[2] If you want a list of a many vocabulary sources, there’s one available via this Dude Link! Link to list of vocabulary articles

[3] Stubbs, M. (2010). Three concepts of keywords. In M. Bondi and M. Scott (Eds.) Keyness in Texts: Studies in Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing: Philadelphia. Available via this Dude Link Link to article on keywords

[4] Here’s one of those wonderful words that deserves to be taken out of the box now and again, dusted down, polished up, and tossed into a sentence just to brighten up an otherwise lexically turgid day. The OED defines encomium as “a high-flown expression of praise.” It come, via Latin, from the Greek enkomion (ἐγκώμιον) and ultimately eulogia (εὐλογία) or “eulogy,” which means “praise.” And yes, the logia element does mean “speaking” and is the same root as logos meaning “word.” Only the Dudes would bring you Classical Greek and make it interesting!

[5] My favorite ink at the moment is made by Diamine and called “Syrah,” a splendid dark-red that looks particularly fetching against the ivory paper of my Quo Vadis Havana journal. I use it in my Cross Torero Bourdeaux Croc, which is a broad-nibbed red colored pen that lives in my travel bag.

Cross Torero Croc red fountain pen

It’s Christmas! Let’s Talk Turkey – or Maybe Not…

I guess it’s officially the Christmas season according to my good friends at SiriusXM Radio. I know because two weeks when I turned on to channel 17, the Love Channel, I discovered it’s now been replaced by the Holly Channel, a selection of music that ranges;

…from contemporary holiday music to traditional favorites, make the Christmas party hop with songs by Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Richard Marx, Gloria Estefan Colbie Caillat, Josh Groban, Michael Buble and more.

Justin Bieber? He’s old enough to have recorded a selection of Christmas classics? Ye Gods, am I old!

SiriusXM Holly channel

SiriusXM Holly Channel

It seems that in a massive US cultural shift, Thanksgiving is no longer the definitive opening day for the seasonal mayhem. Sure, Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – will remain the canonical capitalists’ wet dream for the foreseeable future but I’m pretty sure I’ve been seeing Christmas trees and decorations in the shops for a few weeks already. The new marker is probably Labor Day, which, for the non-US reader, is at the beginning of September. You might not be allowed to wear white fashionably after Labor Day but you can now whip out the Christmas tree and starting playing “We Three Kings” over the store PA system.

It’s also the time of year when therapists are tempted to whip up a new collection of symbols and pages for their clients using AAC systems. After all, there’s a whole bunch of new and exciting words that can be added, such as “Santa,” “holly,” “reindeer,” “mistletoe,” “turkey,” “engorged,” “egg nog,” and “pass-me-the-remote-I’m-too-heavy-to-move.” Why, I even typed in “Christmas vocabulary” into Google and found a number of sites that offered me a selection of words I hadn’t even considered. How could I forget such essentials as “frankincense,” “myrrh,” “poinsettia,” “solstice,” “yule,” “dreidel” and “Scrooge.” [1]

Alistair Simm - Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge - Alistair Simm

But before you are tempted to spend many happy hours creating such lists, downloading images, programming pages, and all that good stuff, consider the difference between a REFERENTIAL and a DESCRIPTIVE teaching approach.

A referential approach focuses on the identification and naming of things. If you have a set of symbols for “chimney,” “cranberry,” “fir,” and “snowflake,” teaching your client to nominate each of these by pointing at the picture or pressing a button on a speech-generating device is referential: you are pairing a word with a referent. In contrast, a descriptive approach would focus on having a client use vocabulary that talks about items, not just labeling them.

Let’s look at a concrete example with just two words; “reindeer” and “tree.”

reindeer tree

 You can add the REINDEER to your system – whether that’s a manual board, a flipbook, or a device – and then procede to teach it. Do whatever you have to do to make that link between the picture, the sound of the word, and the things “out there” that pulls Santa’s sleigh or ends up served with gravy on a plate. (What? You didn’t know reindeer is a food? Sorry to crush any “Bambi” or “Rudolph” fantasies there!)

Then you can move on to do the same for TREE, with modeling, imitating, generating, and generalizing as target behaviors. And at the end of this, your client will have learned “reindeer” and “tree.”

But if you want to get more bang for buck, why not switch it up a little and worry more about teaching words that can be used to talk about reindeer and tree. For example, “Tell me about a tree” can be answered using words like “big,” “tall,” “green,” “hard,” “grow,” “it,” and so on. Pointing at a picture of a tree and asking “What’s this?” has one response; “tree.” [2]

Before folks start foaming at the mouth and calling me an “anti-nounist,” let’s be clear that nouns are, and always will be, an important part of a vocabulary. Nouns are the largest part of the English lexicon, so no system can avoid them. However, because nouns are (a) easy to picture and (b) seem so fundamental to our lives, it’s possible to develop a noun bias when designing AAC systems. [3] Once you acknowledge this can happen, it becomes easier to think about using nouns as a core-word pivot for teaching more generic, more useful, higher frequency common words. [4]

And finally, good news on the Christmas music front: I’ve been listening to the Holly Channel while writing this and so far, no Justin Bieber. And if I didn’t have the words “Justin Bieber” available in an AAC system, I could use it as a core-word pivot and say “He is not who I like. I want him to go away. He is short, he is small, and I don’t think he can sing. I think I am too old to like him and that is not a bad thing.”

[1] If you’re looking for a fun Christmas movie, you should consider the under-rated but deliciously dark Scrooged with Bill Murray. There are some wonderful one-liners and Murray, as always, is the master of timing and facial expression.

[2] One of the more enduring concepts that has come from psychoanalysis into everyday consciousness is that of encouraging someone to talk about themselves and their feelings. “Tell me about your mother” as opposed to “Which parent screwed you up more?” results in a much richer sample of language for the analyst. By the same token, asking “Tell me about ‘trees'” will force a response semantically richer than “What’s that tall, woody thing with leaves?”

[3] I suggest that the noun bias in picture-based AAC system is an artificial construct driven by the nature of the medium being used – pictures on paper, in books, or on a device. Because nouns are inherently easier to represent pictorially than other parts of speech (try drawing “mouse” then “something” and you’ll see the challenge), the bias towards nouns is therefore built-in to the system. I doubt anyone actually sits down and thinks, “Let’s see if I can create a set of pictures with thousands of nouns” but like a train on the tracks, the rails already point you toward a particular destination.

[4] Rather than treating a noun as “the name of a person, place, or thing,” recasting it as a core-word pivot turns it into word that “functions in relation to other words in different grammatical classes, and signals relationships between them.” If you use the word “tree” to also trigger associations with “tall,” “plant,” “grow,” “green” and so on, you’re actually teaching a fundamental property of language – that words can have both denotative and connotative references. If someone didn’t learn this basic notion, then they wouldn’t be able to comprehend metaphor; and metaphor is language. A second value of treating nouns as core-word pivots is that you have a metric to help you decide what nouns to choose; those that pivot more core are better.