Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).

Talky Tuesday: Listen up!

Words are wonderful things in any language because they can communicate so much. Even more so, at least as far as English is concerned, the words themselves don’t have to make much sense and yet can still convey so much.

Just look at the two opening stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s brilliant Jabberwocky. Most of the words aren’t real words, and yet the thing still makes sense in its own way:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Now, why does it make such sense? Mainly because here Carroll is mostly just playing with the nouns and verbs. He leaves the other parts of speech alone. This tells us a lot about how English works, because if I said, “Did those mamleplompers from the widget fiskers over in Nimblebleck caravel up the shashandy yet, or do I need to frelgoik the yerpers in the warehouse,” wouldn’t it sound like it made some sort of sense, and you only didn’t get it because you didn’t know the jargon yet?

Real world example: “So if we go with the birthday rule, you can update your supplement next May, but there’s nothing we can do about your Part D until open enrollment, and as for your spouse, since they’ve already qualified for Part A but had prior coverage, it comes down to whether they fall under IEP or ICEP, which all depends on when Part B became effective.”

In that case, all of the words are English, but that probably made not a lick of sense to most of you and, just over a year ago, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me either. Yes, jargon is a foreign language as well, and English (and all other languages) has many jargons.

But the fuckery can go a lot further than Carroll ever took it, and if we jump into the 20th century, we meet James Joyce, who wrote an entire novel, Finnegans Wake, using multi-lingual puns to create a language that almost did and didn’t make sense. And yet, somehow (to those of us who’ve braved it) it does somehow communicate meaning. The trick, I think, is to read it out loud, which turns it into an hallucinogenic experience. That’s right. Reading this book will make you trip balls.

Here’s just a taste from the first chapter:

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick: not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe.

Really, read it out loud a few times, and it will start to make sense. Trust me.

Another author who played with language in a different way was William S. Burroughs (one of my influences), but rather than making up words, he instead broke up narrative coherence through a rather brute-force physical method called the cut-up technique. This literally involved cutting pages apart and then sticking them back together in random order.

It’s not prevalent in his early works beyond the galleys for Naked Lunch being sent to the printer separately and then put together and published in the order they were returned, which wasn’t the order they were written in. But in his later works in the 60s, he published his Nova Trilogy, three books created using this method. This article has an excerpt from the second book in the trilogy, The Ticket that Exploded.

The next one to play with language was Samuel Beckett, and while I don’t think he used the cut-up method, he did manage to create endless staircases of words that always seemed to be going somewhere but then which would hit a landing and start over. In his case, there weren’t really any cut-ups and all of the words and sentences made sense, but the ultimate effect was always a frustrating trek that dragged us along without taking us anywhere.

Well, at least not anywhere in terms of story, but good Beckett moments like this done with commitment by a talented actor can get us to exactly what he was aiming at. A great example of his style is the famous speech by Lucky in Waiting for Godot. He’s a character who is mostly mute for the entire show, led around by a noose around his neck, but when he gets his moment, well… you can watch for yourself.

Of course, the key to each of these authors is to actually listen to what they have written, and I see people constantly not do that. In fact, most people I know dis Joyce, Burroughs, and Beckett because they’ve tried to read or see their stuff and just didn’t get it. Meanwhile, they love Carroll as long as it’s Alice, but go beyond that and their eyes roll back faster than an odometer on a sleazy used car lot — especially when he was writing about math.

And that is a shame. Because, really, none of them are that hard to understand if you just take the time to read it, experience it, and ignore the literal while letting everything else wash over you. And, ultimately, Joyce’s intent was to recreate the experience of a dream, which only ever makes sense to the dreamer, because the cast and metaphors and everything else only have meaning to them, screw you Freud.

Honestly, I think that the main reason that all of these works by all of these authors are not appreciated is because the public takes half a second to try to understand, then throws up the, “Nope, sorry. Hard. Bye!” flag, and that’s it.

And, honestly, that is one of the biggest failings of society. It’s certainly one of the things that makes me cull my friends if they don’t have it. Mainly… be at least a bit curious about the world around you, and try to learn one or two new things. Or more. But, most important of all, your reaction to a new thing or bit of information should never, ever be, “Oh, no. That is way too hard for my little brain to learn.”

Instead, it should be… “Oh, cool. Opportunity.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you won’t. If you do get it, maybe you won’t be into it, or maybe you will — but you won’t ever know if your first response is “No.”

Image: John Tenniel’s illustration of the Jabberwock, 1871

Four expressions that are older than you think

One of the things I do when I edit and fact-check other people’s books and scripts is to check for anachronisms, which are things that are out of their proper time. For example, let’s say that a major plot element in a thriller is a stolen thumb drive with the names of every undercover agent on it. That’s a great MacGuffin… unless you set your script before 2000, when USB thumb drives were not commercially available. (At a stretch, I’d give you 1999, since we’d be dealing with governmental agencies and all that.)

A very common one that I’ve seen so many times that it’s one of my first searches on period pieces is use of the term “Ms.” Well, not all period pieces, since any story set before 2009 is now considered a period piece, but definitely those that are set before about 1972, which is when the term started to become part of mainstream vernacular. Oddly enough, though, it was first proposed as a neutral alternative to Mrs. and Miss as early as 1901, although it was used as a written abbreviation of “mistress” only as far back as the 17th century. Keep in mind, though, that this usage had nothing to do with treating women as equals and everything to do with male scribes figuring out how to spare themselves writing six letters by hand every time they recorded a record about a single female.

But this brings up an interesting point. Technically, yes the term “Ms.” is a lot older than you’d think. On the other hand, its usage in its modern sense pretty much began as noted above, in the early 1970s. There are other expressions, though, that really are a lot older than you think, so in the spirit of my story about inventions that are older than you think, here we go.

Robot

We haven’t quite perfected the fully autonomous humanoid robot, although Honda’s ASIMO has come close. Keep in mind, though, that they’ve been working on it for over thirty years now. And, surprisingly, while there’s a certain resemblance to the name of a famous science fiction author, the name ASIMO really refers to “Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility.”

The author in question, Isaac Asimov, is famous for writing a lot of both science fiction and science fact, but one of his series, I, Robot, is famous for establishing the Laws of Robotics. However, while they’ve always been popular with science fiction fans, they really didn’t explode onto the scene until a kind of lame 2004 film adaptation, although if you’ve ever owned a Roomba, Scooba, Braava, or Mirra, then you’ve done business with the iRobot. But either of these would probably make you think that robots are a fairly recent invention.

Of course, if you owned any kind of modem between the 1970s and mid-1990s, it might have come from the company US Robotics. Guess where they got their name… That’s right. Also Asimov.

But if you’re only a film fan and not a tech or science fiction nerd, you might think that robots were created in the 1950s, with the appearance of Robby the Robot in the film Forbidden Planet. Never mind that, at least in literature, Asimov got to robots by 1940, because that’s still too early.

The actual origin of the word “robot” is in a 1920 play by Karel Čapek called R.U.R., or Rossum’s Universal Robots. He adapted that word from an old Church Slavonic term rabota, which meant slave or serf. And if you’d like to, you can listen to a reading of the play itself.

To do someone

If someone were to say to you, “Hey, do me,” you’d probably take it in a sexual sense, right? And that also seems like a really modern usage of the phrase. Just thinking back through pop culture, I have it my head that Austin Powers said something like, “Oh, do me, baby” (he didn’t,”) but the slang must have begun with the Beatles in 1968 on the White Album, with the song “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

I really couldn’t find any clear sources for “do it” or “to do” in a sexual sense back from 1968, but I did find one from 1588, in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which reads as follows:

                                   DEMETRIUS
     Villain, what hast thou done?

                                     AARON
     That which thou canst not undo.

                                    CHIRON
     Thou hast undone our mother.

                                     AARON
     Villain, I have done thy mother.

If you doubt this reading, then just take a look at this scene from Julie Taymor’s brilliant adaptation, and you’ll see that it’s exactly how Willie Shakes intended it to read.

Motherfucker

You might think that this one was invented by Samuel L. Jackson, who uses it so eloquently, or maybe it was a product of the 1960s. While the movie M*A*S*H infamously was the first major motion picture to use the back half of the word, it was Myra Breckinridge that turned things on its head by using the word in full, but bleeping “mother” instead of “fucker.”

Prior to the 1960s, this term is alleged to have been used by slaves in America before the Civil War to describe owners who would rape the slaves’ mothers as a psychological breaking tactic, but this probably isn’t true. The earliest attestations come from a court case in 1889, so its origin probably dates back a bit earlier than that, although in the case documents it’s an adjective, motherfucking, instead of the noun, motherfucker. The noun form didn’t pop up until 1917, when a black soldier referred to the draft board as “low-down motherfuckers.”

Seeing pink elephants

This is an old expression to indicate either that someone was habitually drunk or they were an alcoholic experiencing DTs due to lack of booze. Nowadays, the expression has mostly fallen out of use with the understanding that alcoholism is a disease, and nothing to joke about, although it’s still a part of pop culture because of Disney’s original 1941 version of Dumbo, but that isn’t the origin of the expression or the idea. And while it is frequently attributed to Jack London in his 1913 novel John Barleycorn, it actually goes back a bit farther than that, to sometime between 1883 and 1903, ten years before that book came out. It had a lot to do with the disappointment of audiences who were expecting to see a rare white elephant — white because of its albinism — but the beasts actually turned out to be closer to pink. In case you haven’t seen it, the scene in Dumbo is an incredible bit of animated surrealism called “Pink Elephants on Parade” — and I swear that the animators hid one of those infamous Disney toon penises at about the 2:40 mark. Watch the elephant’s trunk.

What’s your favorite slang expression that’s a lot older than people think?

Words both common and not

Knowing other languages can teach us a lot about our own. Not only can common sources for words between our native and target languages help us learn vocabulary, but sometimes an unknown word in our target language can teach us a word we didn’t know in our native language. Here are examples of both.

One of the first sounds that a baby makes, regardless of culture or language exposure, is some sort of “Mmm,” usually associated with an “ah.” If you think about the human mouth for a second, this makes total sense. Close your mouth and try to exhale, and what sound do you make? Now open your lips mid-exhale, and what are the combined sounds?

Ma.

Once a baby realizes they can control the sounds they’re making, it’s a simple step to “mama,” and this sound refers to all things mother in so many different cultures and languages that it’s ridiculous. In Chinese and Japanese both, the word is pronounced mama, and you find very similar things in Zulu (umama), Thai (maaa), Punjabi (mami), and Irish Gaelic (mam). Even in Basque, which is said to be not related to any other known language, the word is ama.

Although less universal, in a lot of Western languages, the M sounds still holds when you get formal: mother, madre, Mutter, mère, mama, matka. And extending the concept via Latin into Romance languages, you find the official word for breasts coming from the same place: mammaries — which makes total sense if you keep in mind that one of a mother’s major functions after giving birth is to feed her child. And that’s true of any animal that is classified as… a mammal.

In case you were wondering where that term came from, ta-da!

I was reminded of this linguistic evolution when I ran across a story in La Opinión with the headline “Policía amamanta a bebé cuya familia sufrió un accidente.” The word that stuck out because I didn’t know it was amamanta, but in the context of the rest, I took a guess and then looked it up to find out that I’d been right. The infinitive form of the verb is amamantar, but if you get rid of the prefix, “a,” and the verb ending, “tar,” you’re left with maman. The prefix “a” is the Spanish word for “to,” but it is also often used when the direct object of a verb is a person, in which case it’s referred to as the “personal ‘a.’” (It even appears in the headline, right before the word bebé.) I won’t get into that here, except to say that affixing an “a” to a verb often means that the verb indicates that the subject is doing something for someone else.

If you haven’t guessed the meaning already, the rest of the sentence is talking about a police officer, and a baby whose family was in an accident. Think of the verb as “mothering-to,” and you can see how it means to breastfeed. The mammaries are right there in the word, so to speak. It just takes a little breaking down to get to them.

And then there are those cases where not knowing a word in our target language at all leads us to look it up only to find out that we don’t know the word in our native language, either. In my case, it was the Spanish word álgido, which I ran across recently. I couldn’t figure it out in context no matter how hard I tried, so resorted to looking it up, only to learn that the English word was… algid.

Okay, that was a new one to me, too. The form of the word in both languages told me that it was probably an adjective — many Spanish adjectives end in –ido/-ida or –ado/-ada because the past participle of the verb is often used that way, just as it is in English: he’s baked, you’re stoked, all the leaves are raked, and so on. Also, a lot of English adjectives end in –id, e.g. rigid.

Otherwise, guessing the meaning really didn’t help. Sure, a lot of Spanish words borrowed from Arabic start with “al,” like alfombra (carpet), or algodon (cotton). Even English got the word algebra from Arabic, but all that the “al” prefix means in Arabic is “the.” Compare this with the Spanish masculine the, “el,” so el algodon is technically redundant. And if you take the al off of álgido, all you’re left with is gido, which means nothing because the only logical verbs it could be derived from would be ger or gir, which do not exist.

And so looking up the translation for álgido in English led me to algid and taught me nothing, so I finally had to resort to an English dictionary, where I looked up the word, doubting that I wound find anything — except that I did. The words in both languages mean frozen or cold, and they come from the Latin word algidus, which means exactly the same thing. It came into English in the very early 17th century as a medical term, and since Latin was still all up the butts of academics and religious at the time, this is probably how it came into Spanish, too. The only difference was in how both languages liked to make their adjectives, so Spain went the –o/–a ending route, while English cut it short.

And there’s another English word that looks a lot like this one and means the same thing: Frigid. Ironically, this word also came into English from Latin, but about a generation before algid. Why one persisted in every day speech and the other didn’t is a mystery I’m not going to try to solve.

And yes, the word for frigid exists in Spanish, too — but I’ll bet you a quarter you can figure out what it is without me even telling you.

The French shooter

Sometimes, the differences in word origins between two languages is very telling. For example, what we call “a sniper” in English is referred to in other languages, particularly Spanish, Danish, and Swiss, as a “French shooter.” In Spanish, this is quite literal: un francotirador, with the “franco” part quite obviously meaning French, attached to the word “tirador,” which means shooter, derived from the verb “tirar,” to throw, the implication being that a shooter “throws” bullets.

So how did we wind up with such different and unrelated words between the continent and the British Isles? Simple: War and hunting.

Basically, French soldiers were very good at shooting things from very far away, and wound up using these skills to help other countries. Perhaps the earliest example comes from the Northern Seven Years’ War between Denmark and Sweden from 1563 to 1570, although interestingly enough they each had two words for it: friskytte/friskytt or snaphane/snaphan. Although neither is in the modern form of the language, the connections to “French shooter” and “sniper” should be obvious.

Francotirador landed in Spanish via the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, during which the Prussians referred to the French soldiers picking them off from a distance as franc-tireurs and, other than the spelling and punctuation, it should be pretty obvious that this is pretty much the same thing as “French shooter.” From there, and especially in modern times, this old term has come to be used in Spanish-language media to refer to any kind of sniper.

And, as for the word snipe, it comes from Old English of the 13th or 14th century, and originally referred to people who were good at shooting down snipes, which were very fast-moving birds. And the word snipe itself comes from Old Norse — thank you Vikings! — meaning that the connection to the Danish and Swedish words is pretty much explicit.

All of this just puts a highlight on one unfortunate aspect of human history and linguistics: so many of the old words we still use can ultimately be traced back to war or hunting. Although, for some reason, the English language has also borrowed “French” as a descriptor for a lot of things, most of them involving sex: you’ve probably heard “French kiss” and “French tickler,” but there’s also “French letter” which, once upon a time, was a euphemism for condom, and “French postcards,” which were the kind of porn your great grandfathers used to look at.

You want French fries with that?

A/B test

Linguists have long debated the topic of whether the language you speak affects and changes the way you think, or indeed creates it, but Stanford researcher Lera Boroditsky believes that it does, and about a decade ago her studies did indicate some surprising things about how language can change the way a person perceives space, time, and relative location.

I won’t go into them here in detail since that’s not the point of this post, but there is an aboriginal tribe in Australia that gives spatial directions in absolute terms, based on compass directions — “What are you holding in your northwest hand?” Consequently, not only are they always aware of their location relative to the compass points, but they think of time this way as well. Ask them to arrange a series of photos in chronological order, and they will do it from east to west no matter which way they’re facing.

If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Time measured from sunrise to sunset; from dawn to dusk.

She did also notice some cognitive changes when they taught English speakers to use the same kind of terms as other languages. For example, they’d ask their subjects to think of durations not as “long” and “short,” but in terms common to Greek and Spanish speakers: little, a lot, and big. They also had English speakers think of time the way Mandarin speakers do — not horizontally and left to right, but vertically, from top to bottom. Yesterday is up and tomorrow is down. Once they started to think in these terms, English speakers started to perceive time vertically as well.

Different languages can change personalities, too. Someone who is shy and reserved in one language may be outgoing in another, and their degree of fluency may also affect the type and depth of change. It’s also a matter of whether someone is bilingual but monocultural, or bilingual and bicultural. In the case of the former, it’s generally a speaker of language A learning language B in their own A-speaking country, largely free of cultural influence from B. For example, a native-born American studying Japanese, but only in the U.S. in school.

In the latter case, the speaker of A will grow up either in the original country of the A language and culture before moving to learn the B language in the B culture, or will grow up in the B country with parents and possibly grandparents who grew up in the culture of A. For example, someone who was either born in Turkey or born to Turkish immigrants to Germany, who either learned only Turkish during their early schooling and then German after emigrating, or who grew up in a household in Germany where Turkish was the primary language, but learned German in school.

I know from my own experience that my personality changes when I speak Spanish. Me hace mucho más coqueto. It makes me a lot more flirtatious. And while I’m technically bilingual but monocultural, the culture of Southern California is so heavily influenced by Latin America in the first place that it takes actual effort to be monocultural here. Then again, the western third of the U.S. used to be Mexico before we manifest-destinied the shit out of it, and two whole continents belonged to the natives and their expansive empires before the Spaniards and Brits toddled along and screwed that up.

Yeah, in English, I tend to digress to lecture a lot. I don’t do that in Spanish so much, either, unless it’s explaining some fascinating thing I discovered about the language to a fellow learner.

Onward!

Another aspect of language is the one that creates group personalities, and part of successfully joining any particular group is picking up on their own specific terminology and slang. Not knowing the terms will immediately peg a person as an outsider. This is very true of improv, and at ComedySportz we jokingly say “We are not a cult,” because some of our warm-up games certainly sound like we are.

But if you eavesdropped on a conversation between a couple of improvisers and had no experience, you’d be totally left in the dark hearing terms like Bunny Bunny, 185, Canadian cross, heel and face, “lean into it,” space work, VAPAPO, Harold, scene game, jump out game, head-to-head, brown-bag, groaner, piano torture, and (#) things.

Some of those terms are even unique to ComedySports and improvisers from other companies might not know them unless they’ve seen CSz shows. Now, if you’ve read my previous post, you probably know where this is going.

Since I started working in the field of health insurance, I’ve been learning a completely different set of words and expressions, a lot of them initialisms or acronyms, and by now I can reel them off by memory: AEP, Part D, MAPD, Plan F, Plan G, effective date, “Original” Medicare, Med Sup, HIPAA, ePHI, open enrollment, re-shopping, CMS (with a whole different meaning than in the internet world), guaranteed issuance, birthday rule, SEP, and on and on.

In all likelihood, unless you’ve ever been on Medicare, worked in a related field, or have helped an older relative navigate its rapids, you probably don’t know what many or any of those terms mean. I sure didn’t just over a month ago. Now, I’m rattling them off fluently with my co-workers.

But, at the same time, I’m now taking on more and more responsibility for explaining the things that I legally can to clients who phone in (I’m not an agent, so can’t recommend plans, or quote prices, or that kind of thing), and the calls are becoming more frequent since we just sent out a massive mailing to let everyone know that it’s time to re-evaluate their Medicare Part D, which is the insurance that covers their prescriptions. Long story short, insurance companies change their formularies, or lists of drugs that they cover, every year, and announce the changes effective January 1st on October 15th. These can make huge differences in cost, especially if a plan suddenly drops a particular drug, or another one has a price increase for a certain tier.

Thus begins the AEP, or annual enrollment period, which runs from October 15th to December 7th. Have I bored the hell out of you yet? It’s actually a lot more fascinating than it might sound, and for me it’s a good insight into the monster we’d be up against with any attempt to make Medicare for All work, especially if it maintains its weird four-part structure.

This brings me back to the language thing, though. In essence, I’m helping people understand a foreign language that I’m only just learning myself, and when I’m on the phone I can already feel my personality change. For one thing, I speak a lot more slowly than I usually do, and my entire manner slips much more into friendly but neutral customer service voice.

And yes, it’s a lot different than my phone personality when I was doing customer service for the Dog Whisperer’s website or when I’m dealing with customers who call the ComedySportz L.A. office or box office because, again, those are different worlds and different languages.

I’ve also quickly learned to become much blunter with people who aren’t clients. It’s amazing how many sales calls the office gets, especially with sales people who try to do so in the guise of already having some sort of business or client relationship with the boss, and he taught me a great question to ask: “Are you calling to buy something from him, or to sell him something that will increase his business?”

Not that this will get them through, but at least I’ll take a message instead of hang up on them.

The real trick, though, is to not get caught up in the confusion that a lot of callers have — and they’re totally right to be confused, since this is either entirely new to them if they’re just turning 65, or because every so often there’s one sudden big change (like this year) and I’m dealing with a number of people anywhere from their mid-70s to mid-90s. A lot of them at that age don’t like change, so they just try to shut it out. Plenty of them don’t mind change and don’t shut it out, of course, but I don’t seem to get those calls.

The end result of it all, though, is that I find myself in the same split-personality world I was in way back during my first office job right out of college, before I went into that almost-exclusive entertainment-related career: normal person by day, creative freak show by night. Bilingual and bipersona, to coin a phrase. The secret is being able to switch back and forth.

Slanguage

One of the interesting things about idiomatic expressions in any languages is that, while the words in them may each make complete sense, stringing them all together may seem to make no sense, at least to someone who isn’t a native speaker or, if they do make sense, the literal meaning is far different than the idiomatic meaning.

A good example of the latter in English is the expression “a piece of cake.” Literally, it’s just a bit of dessert. Nothing odd about that. But, of course, English speakers know the other meaning. A “piece of cake” is something that is done or achieved very easily: “Passing that test was a piece of cake.” Why does a fluffy, iced treat mean this? Who knows.

By the way, the Spanish equivalent of the expression is “pan comido,” which literally means “eaten bread.” Again, it’s a food metaphor, but why it would indicate that something is easy is still a mystery. Maybe, because after you’ve eaten that bread, no one can take it back? So maybe it makes an ounce more sense than its English counterpart. Maybe not.

When it comes to all the words together making no sense, though, we come to an English expression like “cold turkey.” If you didn’t know what it meant, you might assume it refers to a really lousy Thanksgiving dinner. However, what it really refers to is quitting a habit instantly — for example, quitting smoking by just stopping. And yes, the habit is usually something addictive, like smoking, drugs, or alcohol. There’s no clear source for the phrase, although it may have come from come from an alteration of the phrase “to talk turkey,” meaning to speak honestly and plainly, modified with “cold” as in “cold, hard facts” — to deliver something without emotion.

Another fun expression that is more British than American English is “taking the piss,” a short version of “taking the piss out of.” You could be forgiven if you thought this referred to urologist’s daily routine, and don’t confuse it with “taking a piss,” which is somehow both literal and backwards at the same time. I mean, really — doesn’t one “leave a piss” rather than take it?

This expression has nothing at all to do with urine. Rather, it means basically mocking someone or joking at their expense, although how this came to mean that is still unclear. It may have come from Cockney rhyming slang, and the fact that it’s popular in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland, but not in Canada attest to this, although one really wild and unfounded theory refers to the use of urine to tan leather — take this one with a big fat grain of salt. One other possible etymology links it in to another slang term, piss proud, which relates to that quaint phenomenon most men are familiar with called morning wood.

Now back to the top and an interesting idiomatic expression from Spanish in which each word makes sense but all of them together don’t add up to the idiomatic meaning: de par en par. Literally, it’s “of pair in pair.” I’ll give you a moment to take a wild guess as to its actual meaning.

This paragraph provided as a think break before the spoiler. Here’s a really weird idiomatic expression from Swedish: “Att glida in på en räkmacka.” Literally, it means to slide in on a shrimp sandwich. What it really refers to is somebody who didn’t have to work to get to where they are. An American version might be “born on third base” or “born with a silver spoon in their mouth.” Okay, enough of a break. Any ideas on what “de par en par” means?

Okay, here we go. For some reason that I haven’t yet been able to determine, it means “wide open.” And you can put all kinds of open things in front of it: “una puerta de par en par,” a wide open door; “con brazos de par en par,” with open arms; “un corazón de par en par,” an open heart, and so on. (Interestingly, negating the expression by changing it to “sin par en par” does not mean “shut.” Rather, it means unparalleled. Weird, eh?)

If anybody does happen to know why this expression means what it does, please share in the comments. For that matter, if you know the whys of any of the English slang phrases I’ve mentioned, do likewise.

Bye bye bunny

You’ve probably heard of Coney Island, which is a beachfront amusement park located on Long Island, New York, in the borough of Brooklyn. If you’re from Southern California, it’s somewhat analogous to the Santa Monica Pier, and the now defunct Ocean Park, which closed in 1967. But… have you ever wondered how Coney Island got its name?

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that it was named after a member of the Coney family. After all, a lot of places are. The name New York itself refers back to the famous Yorks of England. Perhaps Coney Island was named after the famous Nathan Coney, who founded Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, a world-renowned place. Oh… except that it was founded by Nathan Handwerker in 1916, long after Coney Island had been named. And, to be fair, “Handwerker” is a really great name for somebody who makes their living crafting foodstuffs by hand.

When was Coney Island named, exactly? Well, most likely when the place had been settled by the Dutch and what we now call New York was known as New Amsterdam. They decided to name this stretch of Long Island Konijn Eiland.  You don’t really need to speak Dutch to realize that those words sound a lot like the final name. In fact, Konine Eyelant is pretty much it. So where did the Konijn/Coney come from?

Let’s jump back just a moment to my childhood, when we used to visit my paternal grandmother, who lived in a town called Atascadero, up the end of a street called Conejo Road. And what does Conejo mean? Well, if you grow up in a place with a big Spanish influence, like Southern California, you’ll learn very quickly that “conejo” means “hare.” So grandma lived on Hare Road. And that’s exactly how Coney Island wound up with the name. The Dutch knew it and later settlers just followed…

The place was hare island, originally because it was covered by them, later from linguistic inertia. But, at the same time, it was a misnomer to name the entire place “Hare Island,” because they weren’t everywhere, just in certain places. Like where later New Yorkers built their amusement park.

Note that I’m not using the word rabbit, because there is still no agreement on how this word wound up in English. It may have come from generic Franco-Germanic terms for “little animal,” but who knows? Ultimately, the sounds that led to the name for this creature are most likely Germanic.

As for bunny, again, no one knows. It may have come from a term for a squirrel or a tail, or could have somehow been derived from “cunny,” a diminutive for the aforementioned coney, although with rather unfortunate connotations in the modern era, at least in English.

Then there’s hare, which gives root to “harrier,” either dogs made for running down rabbits, aka hares, or the description of military airplanes that can jump and shoot the shit out of other planes.

None of which would have flown over Coney Island. And the real answer to all of this, may I abandon my linguistic purist roots, is this: In the great long run — as in centuries away from now — folk etymologies are as good as reality. If I say now that Coney Island was named that because the Dutch thought the place was overrun with hares, then so be it… the Dutch win. If, however, my version — or the version in my links wins — and someday the place is renamed Bunny Brooklyn, or whatever… that will be our future history. And that’s just the thing. History is fleeting and, while I like to try to teach what I can learn from what we know now, I also know that in a century or two or three everything we think we know now will be proven wrong.

All I can really say for now is that my grandma lived in a place named for lots of rabbits, and they were definitely there. An amusement park in Long Island was named for the same, although what they called rabbits probably were not. As a kid, I owned and took care of a lot of bunnies, and they were amazing. As an adult, I do improv, a lot of which involves a game called “Bunny, Bunny.” But forget bunnies and rabbits. If you’re really keeping track, it’s coneys and hares.

Same thing as bunnies and rabbits, except not as cute and more durable, and with different words. Really…

Talky Tuesday: Words you might be using incorrectly

fIf you want to communicate effectively, and especially if you want to have credibility whether you’re speaking or writing, it’s important to use words correctly. Yet I hear certain words misused all the time, even by otherwise well-educated people. Note that I’m not talking about often mangled phrases, like “for all intensive purposes” instead of the proper “for all intents and purposes,” or mixing up words like “affect” and “effect.” These are single words that are frequently used improperly.

Cliché

We probably all know that “cliché” means something that has been used in art or literature so often that it has become bland and predictable, and so should be avoided. Movies are full of them — the horror movie villain who isn’t really dead after they seem to have been killed, the henchmen who are terrible shots, the witty comment as the hero dispatches a goon.

We also get these in live theater, though. The so-called “11 o’clock number” comes from the world of Broadway musicals, when the shows used to start at 8:30. This was the “knock ‘em dead before the finale” show-stopper of a song that usually highlighted the vocal talents of the lead, manipulated emotions, and was catchy as hell. Think Memory from Cats, the titular Cabaret, or Rose’s Turn from Gypsy. Also note that nowadays, it’s more likely to be the 10 o’clock number.

Of course, in the latter case, the cliché isn’t so much a specific thing as it is a stylistic conceit.

In literature, clichés can refer to either hackneyed turns of phrase — “I need that like a hole in the head” — or plot elements that have been pounded to death. Young adult literature in particular, from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games via Twilight and Maze Runner abound with them, although, to be fair, they’re more forgivable in YA only because their audience may not have met them yet.

All that said, then, how does the word “cliché” itself get misused? Simple. It’s a noun, and never an adjective. So you’re safe if you say “that’s a cliché.” Not so much if you try to describe something as “that’s so cliché.” In that case, you want the word “clichéd.”

Comprise

This is a word that tends to get used backwards. Hint: If you follow it with a preposition and a list, then you’re using it wrong. Nothing is ever “comprised of” anything else. In that case, you’d be looking for “composed of.”

The “mp” combination in English is interesting because it is one of the ways in which the language has a lot in common with Spanish, and it comes from compound words that would otherwise create the consonant combination “np.” Hell, it even shows up in “compound!” A good Spanish example of this is the word “compartir,” which is very common in social media, because it means “to share.” The constituent words are “con” and “partir.” The former is a preposition that means “with.” The latter is a verb that means “to split.” So, when you share, you split something with someone else: con + partir, but that “np” isn’t liked, to we get “compartir.”

Now to get to the meaning of “comprise,” we have to go back to Middle English via Middle French, where the word “prise” meant to hold or grasp, so the combo basically means “to hold with.” Your preposition is in the phrase, so all you need to add are the nouns.

So… The U.S. comprises fifty states or the U.S. is composed of fifty states.

Further

This word is often confused and misused with “farther.” The two are very similar, but I’ll give you a simple mnemonic to remember the difference, making this a very short entry. “Further” is metaphorical, while “farther” is literal. The latter refers only to physical distance, while the former refers to abstract difference.

“Dallas is farther from Boston than Chicago.”

“He managed to walk farther than his brothers that day.”

“She ran farther in the competition than any other runner.”

Those are the literal versions. As for the abstract or figurative:

“He could extend the metaphor no further.”

“They wouldn’t accept any further questions.”

“Their research proved they had no further to go.”

The way to remember it is this: To create physical distance, you have to go away, and farther has an “a” in it. Yeah, simple and cheesy, but it works.

Ironic

Sorry, but Alanis Morissette is just plain wrong no matter how popular her song is. Irony is not some weird coincidence that happens. For example, slamming the keyboard lid on your hand and breaking it right before your big piano recital is not ironic. Neither is someone saying something during that whole “speak now or forever hold your piece” moment at the wedding.

There are three forms of Irony. First is when what you say is the opposite of what you mean. For example, someone gives you rollerblades for your birthday but you have no legs. That part isn’t ironic, but if you open the gift and announce, “Oh boy, just what I wanted,” then you’re being ironic.

Situational irony is when the intended results of something turn out to be the opposite of what was expected. For example, a husband surprises his wife with an anniversary trip to Paris because she’s always talking about the city, but the real reason she’s seemed so obsessed is because she’s always hated the place, so he’s given her the worst gift ever.

The third form is dramatic irony, and if you’ve ever heard of O. Henry, particularly his short story The Gift of The Magi, then you know this one. A man sells his expensive watch to buy some combs for his wife’s hair. Meanwhile, she cuts off her hair and sells it to by a fob for his watch. Bang! Double irony. This can also happen when the viewers or readers know something that the characters do not.

Less

If you’re a grammar nerd like me, then every time you see that “15 items or less” sign in the store, your butt probably clenches and you have to resist the urge to tell the blameless clerk why it’s wrong. The difference between “less” and “fewer” is really simple.

“Fewer” refers only to countable nouns, while “less” refers to uncountable nouns. And if that seems all super-grammar unintelligible, it’s not, because the words mean what they say. Countable nouns are objects that can actually be counted: one apple, two oranges, three ducks, etc. Uncountable nouns are those that can’t be counted: sugar, coffee, tea, etc.

Note, though, that uncountables can become countable when they are quantized: a cup of coffee, a tablespoon of sugar, a glass of tea, and so on.

But here’s the rule. If you can count them, then you want to say “fewer.” If you can’t, then it’s “less.” “I want fewer apples.” “I want less sugar.”

I don’t have a great mnemonic for this one, although maybe remembering that the “F” in fewer is in “First,” a counting number, might do the trick. And the great compounder to this one is that the term “more” refers to both countable and uncountable nouns: More apples, more tea.

Yeah, I never said that English made any sense.

Whom

This one is not as hard as it might seem, and in order to get it right all you have to do is rephrase the sentence in your head. For example: “To ??? should I send the gift?” Make it not a question, and it becomes “I send the gift to him/her/them.” And the clue comes in the masculine and plural pronouns. They end in “m” and so does “whom,” so if the rephrase would use him or them, then the other way around would use “whom.”

Most of the time, you’ll use “whom” after a preposition, although not always. For example, a question involving verbs without prepositions get tricky. If someone asked you which person you believed, would it be “who” or “whom?”

Turn it around and you get, “I believe them,” ergo, “Whom do you believe?”

Of course, this also puts the lie to the lyrics of several songs. But no one ever said that lyricists have to be grammarians. Poets

do get to slide a bit, after all, no matter the language they write in.

 

You have the right to remain silent

I’ve often told people that I’m glad I grew up in an English-speaking country, although not out of any kind of chauvinism. Rather, it’s just that if I hadn’t learned English as my first language, I doubt that I ever would have been able to learn it as my second, and a huge part of that is because the spelling and pronunciation of things just seem to make no damn sense. There’s an example right there: we spell it “pronunciation” as a noun, but as a verb it’s “pronounce.” Ta… what? Where’d that extra “o” come from?

The only other language I can think of off the top of my head where the spelling seems to make no sense is Irish Gaelic. Let’s just look at a few names. The example a lot of people probably know is Sinéad, as in Sinéad O’Connor. Now, if you didn’t know, you’d probably think it was “Sineed” or “SinEE-ad,” but it’s not. It’s “shi-NAYD.” A couple of Oscar shows back, we all learned that Saoirse wasn’t “sao-irse” or “sa-oyers,” but “SEER-sha.”

So what would you make of the names Niamh or Caoimhe? Neeam and Cammy, right? Nope. Neev (or NEE-av) and KEE-va.

Now, I’m assured that the rules of pronouncing words in Gaelic are completely consistent and easy to remember, but I’ve tried to learn the language, since it is part of my genetic background, and failed miserably. Then again, looking at the last three names together, it does start to make sense, although it’s still a brain breaker.

No such luck in English. It’s tough enough to plough through without silent letters messing things up. Even if you had read it in your head before you read it out loud, you could still make big mistakes if you’re not completely fluent.

I’m not even going to get into all the multiple ways various vowels and diphthongs can be pronounced — and note that diphthong can either be pronounced as “dipthong” (more common) or “difthong” (rarer.) I’m more interested in one particular culprit for this post, though: The Silent E.

In English, the pronunciation of vowels is not consistent as it is in a lot of other Indo-European languages, particularly the Romance languages. In the latter, whatever their vowels are — typically A, E, I, O, U — each have the same pronunciation. In Spanish, for example, they are ah, eh, ee, oh, oo. To jump to Germanic, they are very similar in Deutsche, too: ah, ay, ih, oh, oo.

Any changes come through putting two vowels together, and they’re also consistent. For example, in German, put “ie” together and you get “ee.” In Spanish, put “ui” together and get “uee” On the other hand, other combos in Spanish just give you two syllables. “AE” in a word like “caer,” for example, gives you “ky-air,” the infinitive form of the verb “to fall.”

There’s another concept Spanish has that English doesn’t: Strong and weak vowels. A, O, and U are strong. E and I are weak. And it plays out like this — by affecting certain consonants that come before the vowels, as well as how the vowels combine. In Spanish, the affected consonants tend to be C and G. When the C comes before a strong vowel, then it has the hard K sound (casa — kah-sa); when it comes before a weak vowel, then it’s an S (ciudad — see-ooh dahd). Likewise, when G comes before a strong vowel, it’s more of a hard G (dame gasolina… that second word is pronounced just like in English) and before a weak vowel, more of an H; general, “HEN-eh-ral.”

Final note: notice that the “CIU” combo in “ciudad” is pronounced “see-ooh. That happens when you put a weak vowel before a strong one. It’s the opposite of the “UI” combo. When the strong vowel comes first, the weak one gets absorbed, more or less.

None of which has anything at all to do with how fucked up English vowels are, except as an example of a language with easy and consistent rules. Know how the vowels and diphthongs in Spanish or German or Italian work? Then you’re good to go, and can read and pronounce any word you run across. Period.

Meanwhile, in English, we have little word pairs like these: cat, Cate; fat, fate; gat, gate; hat, hate; mat, mate; Nat, Nate; pat, pate; rat, rate; sat, sate; bit, bite; kit, kite; sit, site; bon, bone; con, cone; don, done; non, none; ton, tone; dun, dune; run, rune.

There are probably a lot more, but I stuck to single-consonant starts. The interesting thing to notice, though, is that we have examples for every first vowel except for E. The only example I can kind of stretch out of it are “Ben” and “Bene” (bin and baynay), but that only works because the latter word is Latin, and both of its E’s are pronounced.

Another thing to note: In other Germanic and Romance languages, the final E is always pronounced. For example, in Italian, the words “molto bene” and “calzone” are pronounced “mole-toe bay-nay” and “kal-zo-nay.” (At least they are by modern Italians. Italian-Americans, who came here before the language was codified after WW II get it “wrong.” At least according to modern Italians.) And, in German, a good example is the word “heute,” which means “today.” It’s pronounced “oy-tuh,” with a great diphthong to start and a pronounced E that doesn’t affect the vowels to end it.

Oh, by the way, the Spanish word for “today” is “hoy,” which is pronounced almost the same as the German word without that little extra syllable at the end.

And, honestly, “syllables at the end” is kind of the trick to it because, once upon a time, before the Great Vowel Shift and back in Chaucer’s day, the E on the end of English words was pronounced as its own syllable. In Shakespeare’s day, the E in the last syllable was also pronounced, especially in participles, so that pronounced would have been pronounced pronounce-ed. This is why modern Shakespearean texts will be marked in one of two ways, depending on the meter… you may see the word as markéd writ, or otherwise unstressed, it is just mark’d.

And while grammarians have tried to come up with logical reasons for silent E’s on the end of words, it’s really a stretch because, again, it’s all based on the vagaries of how English is pronounced in the first place. And there’s a particularly heinous example with a word like “lead.”

If it’s a verb, it’s pronounced the same as “lede,” which is a journalistic concept referring to the most important part of the story which usually starts it off — hence, it leads the piece. However, the reason it’s spelled that way is to distinguish it from the noun, lead, which is pronounced the same as “led,” which is the past tense of the verb to lead.

Confused yet? The reason that journalism needed the easy distinction is because lead or leading (short E) refers to the space between lines of type. When type was set by hand, lines were literally separated by one or more thin strips of lead one point or 1/72nd of an inch thick. The term did carry over into the computer world for a long time, though, only eventually giving away to “line spacing” in modern digital publishing. But lede, lead, led, and lead’s friend read all bring up a good point: Vowels in English make no damn sense.

They used to, and that brings us back to Chaucer and English before the great vowel shift — and before Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster independently sat down to decide how words “should” be spelled. (Hint: Johnson was a pedantic putz, and a big part of the reason that English spelling makes no sense. Webster tried to simplify a bit, but not enough.) See, if you read the prologue to the Canterbury Tales out loud and pronounce every word exactly how it’s spelled, remembering that every vowel is pronounced, even the last E’s in words like “bathed” and “veyne”, and that every vowel has only one pronunciation, you can recite it and sound exactly like a speaker of Chaucer’s English without even knowing the language.

Good luck for any non-English speaker trying to read a modern English work and getting it right. It would come out about as clear as me trying to read Gaelic. I’d imagine that this is probably a good approximation of what this mutt language called English looks like to a non-speaker. Here are the first lines of Chaucer in Gaelic: “Nuair a chuir cithfholcadáin i mí Aibreáin an triomach i leataobh, is féidir go dtéann sé go dtí an fhréamh …”

Yeah. I have no idea, either. I do know that Ben Franklin tried to reform English by creating a slightly new alphabet — or alfabet — in which each letter had only one pronunciation, but it never caught on. Too bad, because most of the rest of English is actually a lot easier. After all, possible it is to greatly do much manglement to the words and syntax yet thus ensues a sentence over all intelligible still in English speech, it is. There aren’t a lot of languages you can do that to.

So I’m glad I learned this difficult chimera first. It makes it easier to deal with a lot of the others.

Photo credit: Carole Raddato, The Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence