Talkie Tuesday: More fun with British vs. American English, Part 1

While I have many friends throughout the British Commonwealth (although, apparently, not a drop of British blood according to DNA tests but despite genealogy), it always amuses me how quaint and weird British English sometimes sounds.

I love collecting comparisons of British and American expressions in order to look at their differences, and which language focuses on what. For example, in general I find that British English tends to focus on the form of something, while American English focuses on the function. That’s not always the case, though.

For this round, I’ve got 23 word pairs, and I’m going to take a look at which one is really the more accurate and pertinent of the two. Here we go. In each pair, British appears first and American second.

  1. Sun cream vs. sunscreen

This is a perfect example of form vs. function. “Sun cream” zeroes right in on the original form of what used to be called sun-tan lotion in the U.S. When it first came out, it actually wasn’t even supposed to protect you from UV rays, but rather make sure that they baked you to an even tone of skin cancer.

The first sunscreens also came in the familiar “squeeze it out of a bottle and rub it all over yourself” form, hence the obvious form designation of cream, since the stuff was generally white and about the consistency of clotted cream or whole milk.

But then along came aerosol sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and different classes of sunscreens — chemical absorbers and physical blockers. So the term “cream” really doesn’t apply to them anymore, especially not if you’re spritzing them all over yourself like hairspray.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point. 1-0.

  1. Salad cream vs. salad dressing

Again, another case of British English going right for the color and form of the originals, since many early salad dressings were based on mayonnaise and, in fact, in many places mayonnaise itself is referred to as just salad dressing and appears in the same aisle in stores.

But… what salad cream ignores as a term is, again, all of the many varieties of dressing that don’t revolve around cream or dairy at all. Without dairy, you couldn’t have ranch or bleu cheese or thousand island or any kind of creamy or yoghurt-based dressing.

On the other hand, there are so many other dressings that don’t contain dairy that the ones that fell out of cows only make up a tiny chunk. You’ve got Italian, Caesar, balsamic vinaigrette, Russian, French, honey mustard, roasted garlic, lemon herb, raspberry- and  honey-Dijon vinaigrette, red wine vinaigrette, sesame ginger, and  olive oil which is (surprise) the real vinaigrette. That “vin” doesn’t come from vinegar, but from vino or vine.

But… having run down the menu, it’s kind of obvious. Most salad dressings have nothing to do with cream, and since they cover up the leafy bits when used, well, I think you can guess who wins here.

Correctness Verdict: American English takes the point, bringing the score to 2-0.

  1. Allen key vs. Allen wrench

If you’ve ever put together anything from IKEA, or from any flatpack, really, then you’ve met this little L-shaped bugger. Usually no longer on one side than your pinky and no longer on the other than the last joint of your thumb, this versatile tool has one job: Screwing in bolts and the like that have hexagonal indentations in their heads.

The form factor of the thing makes it really easy to use. Stick short end into opening, turn long end until bolt is screwed totally in, done. Repeat four hundred times before you realize that you stuck the left side of the legs on the right side of the desk. Throw instructions at wall and scream.

Now, in this case, if we look at the words they break down like this. A key opens or closes something, while a wrench grabs and turns something. And while this little tool technically does grab and turn things, it doesn’t actually act all that wrench-like because you can’t clamp it only anything.

Correctness Verdict: British English for the win, and the score is now 2-1.

  1. Anticlockwise vs. counterclockwise

This one is simple to understand — either something goes around the way that the hands on a clock do, turning from left to right, or it goes the other way around. But what to call that other way?

“Anticlockwise” actually seems to have some kind of hidden political agenda to it — “Down with Big Time!” But “counterclockwise” seems a lot more neutral and just implies going in the opposite direction to the norm. Compare to a musical term like counterpoint. They didn’t call it antipoint for a reason.

And let’s not get started on “widdershins,” which neither language has decided to claim.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores, and that score is now 3-1.

  1. Baking tray vs. cookie sheet

 British English doesn’t even call cookies by the right name, instead referring to them as biscuits. Meanwhile, American biscuits are pretty much scones in the UK. And I have no idea what they actually call American cookies in Britain, but the word had better be “delicious.”

There are pretty much only three things Americans will ever cook on what the Brits call a baking sheet: Cookies, biscuits, or croissants. Okay, there’s the occasional pizza, but let’s not muddy the definition with that, especially since pizza pans are also a thing if we invest enough in our kitchen stuff.

Now since the aforementioned food items (sans pizza) all fall into the basic family of floury treats that either have a lot of butter in them or will get a lot of butter put on them, they’re really the same family of things: Buttery treats.

So we can give them the overall heading of “cookie like objects” and forget the idea that we ever really bake anything else on those sheets.

Correctness Verdict: American English scores again, making it 4-1.

  1. Block of flats vs. apartment building

 Another really baffling British term: flat to mean apartment. So, okay… and what’s “flat” about it? Not a lot. The term is probably derived from a Scottish word, “flet,” which refers to a floor or story of a house. Since most apartments tend to be on one floor, they’re also literally flat, or at least that’s how they try to justify it.

As for the block part… this also makes no sense because a lot of apartment buildings are not just giant square cubes, which is what “block” implies. In the U.S., a block refers more to a street measurement, and demarks the distance, curb-to curb, between points where a road or street interrupts a sidewalk.

In the U.S., a “city block” is generally a half a mile (805 meters), while a residential block is a quarter mile (402 meters). Buildings of all sorts sit within those blocks, but none of the buildings are called blocks, ever. Because they’re buildings. Well, duh.

Correctness Verdict: American English for the self-evident score again, now 5-1.

  1. Breakdown van vs. tow truck

Now this one is just silly. “Breakdown van” sounds like something they send around with a nice mental health counselor who will talk to you at the side of the road and make it all better. They don’t have any tools and can’t fix cars, but you can sit in the back of the van and listen to soothing music or watch calming dog videos.

Meanwhile, “tow truck” is just what it says on the tin. You break down, we send out this hefty vehicle that can winch your pathetic junker up or load it onto the flatbed and whisk it away to the car hospital.

In America, for a small annual fee, you can belong to the Automobile Club (AAA) which is a sort of regional, sort of not organization that provides a butt-ton of services to its members: Free roadside service, towing, trip planning, discounts on various travel and touristy things (and not), a monthly magazine, and cool “avoid the DMV” stuff like auto registration and, now, ability to get your “real ID” (which is total horseshit, but I do digress.)

So… Tow Truck — macho roadside savior. Breakdown Van — is that what it’s called when it’s not trying to find people who haven’t paid their annual BBC license fee? Wimpy.

Correctness Verdict: American, 6-1.

  1. Candy floss vs. cotton candy

Although there were so many better names this shit could have been called — like “Dentist’s Retirement Plan” or “Hyperactivity on a Stick” or “Fluffy Diabetes,” it’s basically hot sugar water shot out through an extruder and wrapped around a cardboard pole by some teen carny who isn’t even making minimum wage because his uncle is the star of the geek and blockhead show and the kid’s mom made him take the job in order to make sure that her brother Toby doesn’t actually injure himself too badly.

A big issue here is referring to it as “cotton,” because that crop has so many nasty connotations in American history. Hell, it was pretty much the foundational product that created decades and centuries of systemic racism.

Plus cotton candy came out of carnivals and stuff like that, and for a long time these were places where only people who couldn’t be hired by “respectable society” (read: Handicapped, disabled, deformed, mentally challenged, or not white) got jobs.

On the other hand, while “candy floss” might sound like something you’d find riding up a stripper’s ass, it has another nice, built-in reminder: Don’t stick this shit in your teeth, okay? And no, I’m not going to make a cheap British dentistry joke here because, you know what?

They’ve done got their shit together on that front. Seriously.

Correctness Verdict: Brits for the win, 6-2.

  1. Cling film vs. plastic wrap

More form vs. function, but the simple answer is “Damn, do the Brits make this product just sound needy.”

[Consumer pulls cling film from box. It wraps around his arm.]

Cling Film: Da! Don’t let go, da! I need you da! PLEASE!!!!!

Consumer: Get the fuck off of me you little freak!

[Rips plastic away and bins it.]

As opposed to:

[Consumer pulls plastic wrap off the roll and stretches it over bowl, pulling it down for a tight seal.]

Plastic Wrap: (in breathy voice) Ooh… thanks, daddy.

Consumer: You’re… welcome?

Yeah, good luck getting that out of your head next time you need to wrap a cut cucumber. But remember: whether you call it cling film or plastic wrap, the thing it sticks to best is… itself.

Correctness Verdict: America is far less needy for once? 7-2.

  1. Corn flour vs. cornstarch

They’re both made from corn, and while the U.S. does have both, they’re different, whereas American cornstarch and British corn flour are the same thing. Confusing? Of course it is.

Cornstarch, as the name implies, is ground only from the endosperm of the corn kernels, so it does not contain protein, fiber, or other nutrients, just starch. Corn flour is ground from the whole kernels, plus the germ and hulls from the corn.

Cornstarch is white and silky to the touch. Corn flour can be white, yellow, or blue, depending on the source, and is a little rougher and not as finely grained.

Both can be used as thickening agents in cooking, but you’ll need to use twice as much corn flour to get the same effect. Since flour actually involves more than just the starchy part of the source grain, I think that this one is easy to score.

Correctness Verdict: America gets the point for culinary accuracy. 8-2.

  1. Current account vs. checking account

This is another one that, to American ears, just sounds weird. We generally have two kinds of regular bank accounts: checking and savings. The latter is the one that you put money into where it theoretically earns interest, but the banks pay so little nowadays that you can have tens of thousands in there and still not make more than half a buck a month.

A checking account is the day-to-day one that you write checks (UK: cheques) from, although that’s become mostly archaic, so it’s now the one attached to your Debit card. They might as well call it a debit account.

Seriously — when was the last time you even wrote a check, or saw someone under 65 write one in a store? And even if you do occasionally get paid by paper check, when was the last time you physically took it to the bank instead of deposited it via your phone?

But… calling it a current account makes no sense at all. Current what? Currently all the money you have readily available to spend? And it’s also kind of an insult to people who aren’t the best at balancing their check books, since what they think they have and what the bank says they have aren’t going to match.

Correctness Verdict: America for having a term that makes logical sense. 9-2.

And now it’s half-time! Come back next week for rounds 12 to 23 to find out which version of English will come out victorious.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.


Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.


Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.


This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.


Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.


In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Sunday Nibble #63: Dyning out

One of the neat things about Greek and Latin is that they use stems and affixes to create a whole lot of words with complex meanings. The affixes are prefixes and suffixes that can completely change the meaning of words.

The prefixes are largely prepositional in nature, but they can also act as adjectival markers. For example, contra-, re-, ab-, and inter- all indicate some sort of physical relationship: Against, back, from, and among. These are prepositions.

Then there are prefixes like ben-, semi-, multi-, and sub-: Good, half, many, and insufficient; adjective. If course, they do overlap, since they’re just creating words rather than sentences.

Most Latin affixes have Greek counterparts. Well, actually, it’s the other way around, since Greek came first. But from one to the other, contra- is anti-; ab- goes with apo-; and re- and inter- have no matches. Likewise, ben- goes with eu-; semi- matches hemi-; multi- hooks up with poly-; sub- matches hypo-.

English lifted a lot of words directly from both languages but frequently with a French influence, which removed typical Latin noun declensions.

Greek was heavily tied up with Western Medicine from the beginning, Latin became first the lingua franca of an Empire and then the religious language of a continent, and then both were eventually preserved and used as the scholarly languages of the Renaissance — when religion was given back to the vernacular.

A lot of it stuck, and you’ll see a lot of Greek and Latin in medicine to this day: prescription, vaccine, hypodermic, and hypochondriac, for example. Of course, a lot of more modern words will just jam the two together. Words like antacid, bigamy, claustrophobia (in fact, a lot of phobias), dysfunction, and liposuction are all considered hybrid words.

But the real power (pun intended) comes in how many different words can come from one stem just by changing the affixes. Today, we’re looking at the stem -dyn, which means power or force — hence the pun.

Here are a few variations.

Dyne: At its most basic, in modern terminology, the stem is a unit of measure. One dyne is equal to the force required to produce a change of velocity in one gram of mass in one second equal to one centimeter per second. If that’s a bit confusing, think of producing a change as just accelerating the mass, but then forget that acceleration only means “pushing forward.” When you hit the brakes on a car, for example, you’re just accelerating backwards, more or less.

Dynasty: Ultimately from Greek dynasthai, with the “thai” ending referring to a class of people. Pretty clearly, it means “people of power,” or those with the leadership roles. It’s resemblance to the English words “die nasty” are pure coincidence.

Dynamic: Basically, the moving force in anything, whether it’s a working machine or the plot of a play, movie, or novel. This gave us words like aerodynamic, photodynamic, thermodynamic, and so on. Aerodynamic also gave us…

Aerodyne: Which was derived by shortening aerodynamic. Specifically, it describes any aircraft that uses principals of aerodynamics to generate lift and so is, by definition, heavier than air. Contrast this to aerostat, which refers to a lighter-than-air ship, like a balloon or blimp, that uses gas to generate buoyancy and lift. Here, the dyne part is replaced with the Greek stem -stasis, which means still or motionless, or quite the opposite of power and force. An aerostat essentially just sits there and lets the gas lift it.

Heterodyne: and others; there are a number of dyne words invented to refer to radio frequency generators from days when they were trying to perfect the techniques. They’re all just variations on how things were done, but this one is typical. The prefex, hetero-, means other. Basically, this was a method of taking two different radio frequencies and combining them, ending up with one that was the sum of their frequencies and the other that was their difference. (Short version: one mix would line up the peaks of the waves and the other would line up peaks and troughs.) Usually only one of the resulting frequencies is used, though.

Dynamite: Finally, here’s one that combines Greek with English. Invented by Alfred Nobel and patented in 1867, his guilt over its destructive power and early use in warfare led him to establish the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, dynamite fell out of favor with the military, who replaced it with TNT (not the same thing) because the latter was more stable, immune to weather conditions, and needed a blasting cap or other charge to set it off. On the other hand, dynamite was very susceptible to the weather, decaying quickly, and was also prone to flames, sparks, or a sudden shock making it go “boom.” Remember: one of the main ingredients in dynamite is nitroglycerin.

Now here’s a fun challenge — see how many Greek and Latin affixes and stems you can spot in words in this story that are not specifically listed as having such, or do it with anything you might happen to read next.

The commonality of such constructions might make you hyperventilate.


There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.


Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

While the planet became small, the people got smaller

I love the internet because it means that I’m in regular contact with people all around the planet, and have gotten to know a lot of them quite well. I have friends on every continent except Antarctica, but I’m working on that one.

Otherwise, I’ve got Australia and all of Asia covered, from those islands off of the southeast part of it to the major countries in it, from Japan to Russia, as well as Thailand. A tour through the Middle East and Africa brings us to Europe, then finally back to the Americas, where obviously the bulk of my friends are in my home country, the U.S., but quite a lot of them are also in Latin America because I’ve taken the time to become bilingual enough to communicate.

The one thing that most strikes me about chatting with any of these people no matter where they are in the world, what culture they come from, or what language they speak, is that they all want the same things that I do, and that my friends from my culture do. Remove all of the surface decorations, and every human is the same as every other one.

Having been on the internet since the beginning has definitely had one major effect on me. Hell yes, I’m a globalist, but not in the “corporations take over the world” mode. Rather, my form of globalism is this: The citizens of the planet take it back from the corporations. It’s the difference between Corporate Globalism (bad) and Humanist Globalism (good).

Corporate Globalism is a falsehood. It doesn’t unite the world by eliminating barriers and borders. It does quite the opposite. Or, sure, it pays lip service to trading partners and global commerce and all that, but how does it achieve it? By creating artificial barriers and borders.

Truth be told, the developed nations of the planet produce quite enough food to feed the underdeveloped nations, and have quite enough resources to actually pay a decent living wage to the people they currently exploit in them.

The trouble is, the corporate class has a gigantic blind spot. They don’t realize that helping the entire planet profit and prosper will, in turn, lift everyone up, themselves included. If our current billionaires stopped being so selfish for a decade or two, they would reap the rewards and become trillionaires. Give a little bit back today, collect repayment with interest tomorrow.

So that’s one of the ways people became smaller even as the world did even though they should have become bigger. The super-rich decided to keep on hogging everything for themselves, not realizing that this will leave nothing for no one, and when they’ve managed to kill off everyone slaving away to support their lifestyles, they will be left stranded, desolate, and with no idea how to do even the most basic things to survive.

“Sylvia, do you know which button on the stove turns it on to cook water?”

“No, Preston. I have no idea. We could ask Concepción.”

“She died last winter because she couldn’t afford medical insurance, remember?”

“Oh. Crap.”

At the same time, far too many regular people have become too small as well, because they’ve bought the lies of the super-rich, which all boil down to this: “Those people who (aren’t like you/aren’t from here/believe differently/speak another language) just want to come here and steal your stuff.”

Never was a bigger crock of shit foisted on the world than this thinking, which we have seen in many countries in many different eras — and we are definitely seeing far too much of it today.

And it’s nothing but the ultimate in projection, a specialty of the 1%. They are the ones who are afraid of everyone else coming to take their stuff, and they should rightfully be afraid of exactly that, because parts of the world are starting to catch on. Humanist Globalists want to eliminate borders, trade barriers, and the idea of separate nations. Yeah, I know that this can sound scary, but it does not mean eliminating national identities.

It’s kind of the opposite of that. In essence, countries would become the new corporate brands, with their citizens or residents as stakeholders. There wouldn’t be hard lines between them, but there would be ideas and commodities that each particular brand specialized in. It’s kind of a new form of capitalism where the capital isn’t the artificial idea of money. Rather, it’s what it always should have been: The people who work in the system, the fruits of their labor, and the outcome of their ideas. And, in turning it into a “share the wealth” model on a planet-wide basis, we really would have a rising tide that would lift all boats.

The Americas (all of them) sell popular culture, with dashes of Britain, Australia, and Japan included. Europe sells us ideas on how to do things better, especially in urban planning and social policy. Asia sells us technology. Africa sells us the raw materials to make this all happen. The Middle East buys everything because, in an ideal world, they no longer can sell their oil, but if they want to turn Saudi Arabia into the world’s biggest solar farm, let them have at it. And, in every case, the workers who make all of this happen are the real stakeholders.

This is essential in the near future on two fronts. One is in getting our act together to deal with the climate crisis we’re facing and, if we can’t stop it, at least mitigate it. There are going to be climate refuges by the end of this decade, like it or not. We may already have some fleeing Australia. It’s only by eliminating all borders that we can give these people a place to go without politics becoming the cruel boot-stomp in the face that sends them back.

The other front is in getting off of the planet, and the “space race” model born of the Cold War has got to go. Sure, the U.S. vs. USSR is what put us on the Moon first, but later Apollo/Soyuz missions proved that space could be a borderless entity. By this point, when we have multiple nations and private companies firing things into space, we’re basically in the modern version of seafaring in the early 17th Century, a point by which governments (England, Spain, Portugal, France) were financing expeditions to discover new lands, but so were private entities (The Dutch East India Company, Dutch West India Company, etc.)

This was really only a century after Columbus, and we’re a half century past the moon landing, so the timing fits, the only difference being the players, which are now the U.S., Europe, Japan, China, Russia, Iran, Israel, India, both Koreas, Italy, France, and the Ukraine. And, on top of that, add Elon Musk and Richard Branson, the aforementioned companies East (Branson) and West (Musk) that will probably do a better job of it.

All of which reminds me of the opening sequence of the movie Valerian and the City if a Thousand Planets, which is going to be a cult classic one of these days. I mean, come on. Just look at this.

But I do digress. The point is that as long as we remain trapped on this tiny muddy rock stuck in orbit around a flaming nuclear ball and with lots of rocks flying around that may or may not end all human life as we know it without warning, then we are stuck with what we were stuck with. The planet isn’t making any more oil or precious metals. It is kind of making more land, but only if you rely on the very long-term volcanic upwelling of new islands, although this is more than offset by the loss of land that’s going underwater.

We do get new oxygen, for the moment, but only for as long as we maintain the planet’s lungs, which are all of the forests we seem hell-bent on chopping down.

The only things we do get more of every second of every day are… energy, from the sun, wind, and tides, all natural forces. They are limitless, at least for our purposes, driven by physics, and if we could harness even one tenth of their energy, we could change the world and save ourselves.

Why doesn’t it happen? As it’s been put in the past, there’s only one reason. Corporations haven’t figured out how to put a meter on natural processes. And this is perhaps the stupidest thinking ever. What about hydroelectric dams or nuclear plants? Hell, what about waterwheels or old-school windmills? All of those use natural sources. All of those have made money for people who controlled them.

What they don’t get is this: Solar, wind, and tidal power, after the initial infrastructure investments, will be far cheaper per kilowatt hour to create, but far more profitable at even one tenth of the kilowatt hour price that power companies now charge. The only reason these backwards thinking troglodytes embrace fossil fuels is because they see a resource that is running out, and so one that they can keep jacking the price up on as it becomes rarer and rarer.

Metaphor: This is like a butcher who has run out of meat, so starts cutting up and selling his children, until he runs out of children, so then starts cutting up himself starting at the feet, and isn’t even aware of the problem because he keeps telling himself, “I’m still selling stuff, and I’m still breathing! I’m still breathing. I’m still… oh, shit. That was a lung.”

Renewable resources, especially of the unlimited kind, are immensely more profitable than finite resources for exactly that reason: You can keep selling them forever, and if you can keep selling them at a small price, demand goes way up, so the economy of scale makes you a lot more profit than you’d get by hiking the price on a vanishing commodity and so reducing demand.

In order to save ourselves and make sure that our grandchildren and their grandchildren actually get a planet to inherit, we need to do one thing right now: Start thinking big by not being so small-minded. Tell yourself every day: There are enough resources for all of us on this planet if only everyone would share. People who don’t want to share are bad, and should be voted off of the island and/or planet. It is only by eliminating all borders and unnatural divisions that we can save this planet by making it one. No, you won’t lose your precious self-identity if this happens. If anything, it’ll just get more fun because you’ll get to tell your story to lots of people with their own stories as you all share.

There’s the key word again, and another reminder of the motto we need to start living by: “One Planet. One People. Please.”

Image: © Ad Meskens / Wikimedia Commons

Talky Tuesday: Noah Webster explains it all

Noah Webster was 70 when he copyrighted his Dictionary of the American Language in 1828. This in itself is a meta-event because he was one of the people most instrumental in reforming American copyright law in order to extend its terms, extending coverage from 14 to 28 years, with an option to extend another 14 to a total of 42 years.

The dictionary was originally released in two volumes for the price of $20, which may seem cheap until you adjust for inflation: $471. This meant that, effectively, it was probably only purchased by institutions like libraries and schools. A price cut to $15 ($353) did improve sales and the first edition run of 2,500 copies sold out by 1836.

It’s kind of ironic, really, that the price of a good hardcover version of the modern Merriam-Webster Dictionary is actually the same or less than $15 in absolute dollar amount and would have cost about 64 cents back in the 1820s.

Webster’s original dictionary had 70,000 entries, but how did they happen? Well, not quickly. It took him 22 years and along the way he learned 26 languages in order to accurately track word origins.

His main goal was to define and create a uniquely American version of English, avoiding the classism and mutually unintelligible local dialects of England, and he really started the job not long after American independence.

He also sought to simplify spelling to avoid foreign influences on orthography, which Samuel Johnson didn’t. This is why one of the most notable differences between British and American English shows up in word pairs like centre/center, flavour/flavor, and programme/program.

By the way, Johnson lost more than he won. For example, he wanted to spell words like “public” as “publick,” and extended his “ou” fetish to words like “horrour.”

In modern times, dictionaries are compiled by lexicographers, who look for usages of words in the wild and, once they become widespread enough to be commonly known, go through the process of defining and adding them.

Note that unlike Spain or France, the U.S. does not have a single, national governing body that determines the rules of the language or the words in it.

The dictionary is adding words all of the time. Sometimes, new words wind up there fairly quickly. In other cases, it takes a relatively long time. Here are some additions from April and September 2019, and a general idea of how long they were in the wild before they became “official.”

Here are a dozen recent additions.

  1. Bechdel test: Coined by Alison Bechdel in 2007, this was her way of assessing the representation of women in fiction. The question in the test is this: “Does this work feature two women who talk to each other about something besides a man?” Sometimes, the additional requirement of both female characters being named is included.
  1. Bottle episode: This is one of my personal favorites mainly because it relates to my field. A “bottle episode” is an episode of a TV series that takes place mostly in one location, and with only a few characters, and it exists entirely to save money. Often, showrunners will toss in a bottle episode when they know they want to shoot the moon on the budget of their season finale. It can actually make for compelling television, though. Although a number of examples on that list predate it, the term was first used in 2003.
  1. Deep state: This one is older than you’d think, since it’s only recently shown up in the demented ravings of certain politicians. The idea is that it’s a hidden cabal of unelected government officials working behind the scenes to influence government policy in an extra-legal way. The joke is that this system already exists in the open, and it’s called lobbying. The current usage of “deep state,” despite perceptions, goes back much further than 2016. It originated in 2000.
  1. Escape room: I think most people know what these are — elaborate interactive theatrical puzzles in which a group of people gets a certain amount of time to solve a mystery and get out. This is also one of the faster additions to the dictionary. Unlike other words here that date back twenty or more years, the first use of escape room was in 2012.
  1. Gender nonconforming: Added along with top surgery and bottom surgery, the first term originated in 1991, and the other two go back to 1992 and 1994 Gender nonconforming refers to someone who exhibits behavioral, psychological, or cultural traits not usually associated with their biological sex. The two surgeries refer to the procedures used in gender confirmation surgery to respectively make the breasts and upper body or genitals and lower body match the person’s true gender.
  1. Gig economy: This is the modern system of serfdom that forces people to freelance at severely depressed wages and without benefits in order for incredibly well-off companies to save money by not actually providing living wages and things like health insurance, paid time off, and pensions. Coined in 2009, it has very quickly proven to be about the worst possible invention of late-stage capitalism.
  1. Page view: This is a web statistic, as in how many times a specific web page has been viewed by visitors. Considering that the concept of counting visits to a page goes back to the internet dark ages of the mid-90s, when every Geocities page had a hit counter, this concept took forever to finally make it into the dictionary.
  1. Purple: A new definition for the color, extended to refer to states that are neither predominantly Democratic (blue) nor Republican (red). The idea of color-coding political parties goes back to 1976, but the specifics of red and blue weren’t nailed down until the election of 2000.
  1. Qubit: This is the quantum computing equivalent of digital computing’s bit, which is the most basic unit of information. The difference is that a qubit doesn’t store a single digit. It contains all of the possible states of a particle until its collapse to a single value. It was also coined over 25 years ago, in 1994.
  1. Rhotic: This one is surprising, considering that it comes from the world of linguistics, which would seem to be a natural field for harvesting dictionary words. And yet, it took 51 years for it to be added. The term was first used in 1968, and refers to whether or not the consonant “r” is pronounced in words, especially before other consonants (cart, park) or at the end of words (car, jar.)
  1. They: All right, the word itself goes way, way back in English history, arising in the 13th century as the third person plural pronoun. What became official in 2019, though — and which you can now use to shut up pedantic purists — is that the pronoun “they” is now accepted as a gender-neutral singular as applied to a nonbinary person.
  1. Vacay: The term is a very straightforward shortening of the word “vacation.” Surprisingly, it took nearly thirty years to make it into the dictionary, having been first attested to in 1991.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the dictionary. What are some of your favorite words that may or may not have been added? Let us know in the comments!

Talky Tuesday: El-Al

No, the title of this post does not refer to the Israeli Airline, although it does allude to that part of the world. It’s just that the suffix –el and the prefix al– are often, but not always, clues that words in English and Spanish came from either Hebrew or Arabic respectively.

Hebrew and Arabic both use roots with prefixes and suffixes to indicate things like gender, number, case, part of speech, and so on. In the case of Arabic, “al” is a prefix that means “the.” Interestingly enough, in Spanish, “al” is the combination form of the preposition “a”, which means “at” or “to”, and the masculine singular definite article “el”, which means “the.”

So the phrase “el hombre” in Spanish means “the man,” while “al hombre” indicates giving or moving something to or at the man. The article “el” in Spanish bears absolutely no connection to the Hebrew suffix “-el”, though.

Let’s look at Arabic first. From 711 CE to 1492 CE, much of Northern Africa and most of Spain was under Muslim rule. As a result, the Arabic language and culture left a huge influence on the country, even after the Reconquista.

There are a lot of Spanish words that came from Arabic because of this, of course, but here I’m only going to look at a few of the “al” words. I find these a bit amusing if only because if you use them in Spanish with the definite article, you’re redundant. “El Alhambra,” for example, would be the the Red Fortress.

  1. Alcalde: al-qadi, the judge; Spanish for mayor. The feminine form is la alcaldesa. Originally, they were sort of assistant judges, but eventually became more municipal officers until the word took on the modern sense it has now.
  2. Alfombra: al-ḥánbal, a ceremonial tapestry. In Spanish, it means carpet, and if you watch awards shows in Spanish language media, you’ll hear the phrase “la alfombra roja” all the time: the red carpet. Now, since a tapestry is normally something hung on a wall, I have to wonder whether turning them into carpets wasn’t a little FU response by the Spanish once they threw off Muslim rule — “We’re going to turn your pretty wall hangings into something we walk on.” Hey, it’s not impossible.
  3. Algodón: al-qúţun, probably flax. The word is Spanish for cotton but, despite the similarity in sounds, there is no known connection between the Arabic and English words.
  4. Alhambra: al-Ḥamrāʼ, the red fortress, which describes the building in Granada, Spain It really is an architectural wonder, and must have been an amazing place to be during its heyday.
  5. Almoháda: al-mujadda, a word which means the same in Arabic and Spanish, and something I’m sure that all of us appreciate a lot more right now, if only it means we can stay in shelter and follow or increasingly vivid dreams. Una almoháda is a pillow.

As for English words that came from Arabic, here are a select few:

  1. Alcohol: al-kuḥl, which originally referred to kohl powder, which was used as an eyeliner. It was via the distillation process that the Egyptians used to create kohl that the word alcohol eventually came about. but eventually to any distilled or rectified spirit.
  2. Algebra: al-jabr, the reunion of broken parts, which is kind of what algebra does with its equations. Specifically, this referred to reducing fractions to integers in calculations. –
  3. Alkaline: al qaliy, referring to calcined ashes, which were the original source of alkaline substances, which is the current source of an ineffective fad Or, at least, misidentified. While the diet can have positive benefits, it has nothing to do with altering alkalinity in the body. Rather, the diet focuses on fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables, which is healthy regardless.

But I do digress. Onward!

The Hebrew suffix –el, which means god, is appended to names to create an attributive phrase. A lot of these names were applied to archangels in Hebrew tradition, and I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the more famous ones, many of which are very common first names in the Western World.

Just remember that in the original, the emphasis would be on last syllable so that, for example, the name Michael would be pronounced Mika-EL. Also, the name of the country Israel itself is an example of one of these words, from yisra-el, meaning “god contends.”

Yisra is derived from the word “sarah,” meaning to contend, and Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled — or contended — with an angel of god.

To derive the female versions of these names, general just add an “a” — Daniel, Daniela, etc.

  1. Ariel: ari-el, lion of god. The Angel of Nature, Ariel is depicted as either male or female, depending upon tradition. They protected and healed animals and plants, and punished those who injured nature. Ariel was also the chief of the choir of angels known as the Virtures.
  2. Azrael: azar-el, he who helps god. Although not explicitly stated as such in Jewish tradition, Azrael is one of the Islamic angels of death. He’s not necessarily a malevolent angel, more of a civil servant, although not to be confused with the completely fictional Aziraphale from the book and minseries Good Omens. Okay, not that the other angels aren’t completely fictional as well, but… oh, you know what I mean.
  3. Daniel: din-i-el, god is my judge. Daniel is an angel in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, but not elsewhere in the Bible. He is, however, the quite human star of the Book of Daniel, where he is most famous for surviving being thrown into the lion’s den — an incident that happened because he happened to be good at his job and incorruptible, and it made the other satraps jealous and angry, so they set him up.
  4. Gabriel: gever-el, god is my strong man. One of only two archangels named in the Bible, he appears three times: The first is in several mentions in the Book of Daniel as Gabriel arrives to explain one of Daniel’s visions to him and to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, Gabriel shows up to both Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, and Mary, wife of Joseph, to let the former know that his wife was going to give birth to John the Baptist, and the latter know that she was going to give birth to Jesus, good luck explaining that one to Joe, apparently.
  5. Michael: micha-el, who is like god? The other archangel mentioned in the Bible, and one that I have an affinity with even though I consider myself to be a Catholic atheist. That might sound weird, but the idea is that I appreciate the trappings and customs of the religion of my mother (except for the kiddie-diddling) while believing in none of it. For me, though, St. Michael, the archangel depicted slaying Satan, is above all a symbol for each of us defeating our own dark sides. Since the two are always depicted together, they are sort of a Catholic yin-yang.
  6. Nathaniel: netan-el, gift from god. There’s no Jewish tradition of any angels named Nathaniel, but that hasn’t stopped modern woo culture from plowing on ahead and creating their own. He does show up in the Bible, though, as Nathanael, one of the Apostles, but is only mentioned in the gospel of John and nowhere else.
  7. Uriel: uri-el, light of god. Not an official archangel, although he possibly hung out with cherubim guarding the east side of Eden wielding a flaming sword after Adam and Eve were kicked out.

And there’s just a short survey of words and names that came from Arabic and Hebrew into Spanish and English. There’s a long list of English words that came from Arabic but don’t start with “al,” as well as a bunch of English words that came from Hebrew but don’t end in “el.”

The point is that English really is a melting pot of a language that loves to absorb words from other languages and cultures, and don’t let any schmuck ever tell you otherwise — especially not as you read that previous sentence with words born from Latin, French, German, Saxon, Greek, and Yiddish in it. Capisce?

Momentous Monday: Dog talk

Here’s a blast from the past, an article from before the quarantine which is still relevant today. In fact, this one is even more relevant because, when I wrote it in 2019, I had no idea that all three of my dogs would be past tense by now.

I’ve noticed a really interesting phenomenon with two of the three dogs I’ve owned as an adult. Well, technically one-and-a-half, because the first one, Dazé, started out as the family dog that we adopted after the first dog died. Basically, we started out together when I was still doing the whole K-12 thing and lived with my parents when I went to college.

But although she was supposed to have been my mom’s dog, Dazé was having none of that. She decided that I was her human almost from the beginning — we adopted her at 12 weeks old — and when I finally moved out on my own after college and as soon as I was able to, she moved in with me and then never left. She was probably the most intelligent dog I’ve ever met, and also one of the most easy-going. She loved people and other dogs, and yet somehow always managed to be the boss dog in any pack. The first place I moved her to, there was a Rottweiler mix that started as a puppy but who grew into a giant of a dog that could stand on her hind legs and look me in the eyes, and I’m 6’2”. Didn’t matter. That dog, Toad (my former roommate has an odd but wonderful sense of humor) totally deferred to Dazé in everything, and all it took was a look from my dog. She never bared her teeth or made threats or anything. It was amazing to watch.

This carried on later when I lived in a house with two other guys and four other dogs, all of which were much bigger. Dazé weighed about 30 pounds, while the other dogs each weighed at least 90. That didn’t matter. It was a house rule, at least among the dogs, that none of them were allowed in “my” room, even if I tried to beg and coax them in. I remember one particular night when the roomies were both out of town and it was storming something fierce. I’d let one of the dogs, Sarah (an Irish Wolfhound, so you know the scale) into the backyard because she gave me that “Gotta pee” look. But when she was done, I decided to let her in via my room, which had a sliding door that opened onto the yard, rather than through the kitchen. So I opened it, called her in, and despite the downpour and sad look on her face, she really, really didn’t want to.

And what was Dazé doing? Just sitting on the bed, looking calm and harmless. I finally managed to get Sarah to come in, but she slinked so low to the ground and dashed through so fast, that the message was obvious:


And Dazé just stayed on my (ahemn — her) bed, doing nothing.

I never really did figure out how she had this super power, although I did see one crack in it at a New Year’s Day party held by a playwright friend of mine. Her theory was that since we could never really know the exact birth dates of our dogs unless they came from a breeder (hint: they never should) then we might as well just peg it to the start of the year and go from there. So everyone was invited to bring their dog.

All well and good, Dazé gets along with dogs, but then a party guest who had snorfed a little too much herbal refreshment started giving Milk Bones to my dog and the hostess’ dog, Hank, who was a pretty hefty yellow Lab mix. Well, the inevitable happened. She tossed one too close between them, Dazé went to grab it, and Hank decided to put her head in his mouth. It was more of a warning than an attack, but she ducked and fled, and when she came back to me — and it was very clear that she was in “Daddy, daddy, help” mode — I was able to pick her up like she was a Kleenex. She’d gone so limp in fear that she really seemed to weigh nothing. There was a tiny nick on her head that was bleeding, and it was the one and only moment I ever got to see her lose her mojo.

Flash forward to current dog, who has a lot in common with Dazé, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Dazé finally passed, and she came to me as a fearful rescue, a white German Shepherd mix who started out terrified of me until I just ignored her, but once she realized that it was okay for her to sleep in my bed with me and that I gave her food, she bonded totally. Just like with Dazé, I was her human. However, she never really developed the talent that Dog 1 and Dog 3 did, and although I loved her very much, I have to say that she was the problem child I had to have in order to learn.

When Shadow was five, I decided that she needed a companion, and so I adopted Sheeba, who was 11 months old, and who had been thrown out of a car for reasons I’ll never understand. What struck me about her in the shelter, though, was that she just seemed so calm — and this was even more amazing when I found out on adoption day later that week that I first saw her about two hours after she’d been brought in after being saved from the streets.

Sheeba is a lot like Dazé. Put her in a pack situation, and she goes into boss mode. The big difference with her, though, is that it’s really clear that she does it physically instead of mentally. Dazé would just give a look. Sheeba tends to get in the other dog’s face and puff up. (By the way, the two of them were just about the same size.)

And yes, she’s gotten into her share of fights — several times with Shadow, and once or twice with friends’ dogs. These mostly revolve around food, as in, “Bitch, back off my dish, or Ima hurt you.” A big thing I learned when I had both Shadow and Sheeba was this, too: As a human, do not try to impose the alpha/beta roles, because it will lead to disaster. See, in my mind, I did the typical parent thing. “Older kid gets first dibs and such.” Yeah, that works with humans. With dogs? Not so much.

If I’d been aware enough from the start, then I would have made Sheeba alpha, and that would have made both of them happy. Instead, I tried to make Shadow alpha, which only managed to piss off Sheeba and make Shadow even more nervous.


But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Dazé is that dogs really do speak to us, too. We just have to learn to listen. Now, I’m not sure whether I’m the one who took so long to pick up on it, or she’s the one who took so long to figure out how to train me, but… during the last five or six years of her life, I started to notice that she would approach me with intent, make eye contact, and then basically create a subject-verb-object sentence (SVO) by where she was looking.

The funny thing is that this is actually the way that English works, too. “You do this” is probably one of the simpler examples. Stripped down in dog talk, though, it omits finer points of vocabulary like adjectives and adverbs, although, to be honest, these really seem to come out of attitude — a really impatient, huffy dog is coloring the entire sentence with “fast” or “soon.” In a lot of ways, that’s like any form of sign language, where the tone of the sentence isn’t portrayed in what the hands are doing, but rather in the face and expressions.

In that context, it makes total sense, because our dogs have basically had to figure out how to teach us how to understand their signing. And that’s pretty amazing.

Both Dazé and Sheeba eventually started doing this, and it always took the same pattern. After they’d gotten my attention, they’d make eye contact, which meant “You.” Then they would pointedly turn their head to look at something, so literally using an action as an action word, although I think that “Dog” probably only has one universal word that can mean do, make, get, or give. This really isn’t all that far off from human languages, which not only frequently have one verb that can mean all of those things, but it’s also one of the most irregular verbs in the language. (Side note: It’s almost a guarantee that the verb for “to be” was, is, and/or will be ridiculously irregular through all tenses in every language.)

Anyway, so… look at me, then turn the head — subject, verb. And what happens next? Object, which is where the dog looks — their bowl, meaning “food,” the sink, meaning “water,” the cupboard, meaning “treat,” or the door, meaning “walk,” or… anything else. The point here is that the need the dog expresses is not abstract, and that is probably where the species separate.

After all, a five-year-old can tell its parents, “I want to go to Disneyland when school is out.” A dog, not so much. While they may have a sense of language, they do not have a sense of time. If you doubt that, compare how excited your dog is to see you come home after five minutes vs. five hours. Not really a lot of difference, right?

A long time ago, humans naively believed that we were the only species to develop language, but that’s clearly not true. If we define language as set of syntactic methods to communicate, then most species have language, and humans are not unique. We are probably unique in the sense that we alone use written or inscribed symbols to represent the sounds that make up our language, which is what you’re reading right now, but we do not absolutely know that we are the only ones.

The point, really, is this: We all need to step back from this idea that humans are the superior life forms (hint: we’re not) and, instead, start to listen to all of the others, and to nature itself. If you’re lucky enough to have pets of any kind, start to pay attention and listen. They may be trying to tell you something, and are getting totally frustrated that you’re too stupid to understand. Dog knows that this is how Dazé finally taught me.

Did I mention that the first couple of times she tried the “You give food” thing with me, she actually gave me a dirty look when I didn’t get, audibly sighed in frustration, and then pointedly repeated it until I finally got it? Because that is exactly what she did. And that is why I got it the first time Sheeba did it. Which is interesting in itself, because it means that one generation of dog managed to teach me a language that I was able to understand in a much later generation, and, holy crap, how amazing is that?

Image: Dazé, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

How have your pets communicated with you? Let us know in the comments!

Talky Tuesday: Language is (still) a virus

The following is a repost from the end of March 2020, just eleven days after the lockdown started in Los Angeles. This was the view from the other side of the pandemic, before we knew anything.

I used this Burroughs quote as a post title a couple of years ago in an entirely different context, but the idea has taken on new relevance, as I’m sure the world can now agree.

This post’s title comes from a William S. Burroughs quote which reads in full as, “Language is a virus from outer space.”

What he meant by the first part is that words enter a host, infect it, and cause a change in it. Just as a virus hijacks a host’s cells in order to become little factories to make more virus to spread a disease, words hijack a host’s neurons in order to become little factories to make more words to spread ideas and belief systems.

As for the “outer space” part, I think that Burroughs was being metaphorical, with the idea being that any particular language can appear totally alien to any other. While, say, Mongolian and Diné may both come from humans on Earth, if a speaker of either encountered someone who only spoke the other, they might as well be from different planets because, for all intents and purposes, they are from different worlds, unable to communicate with words.

And the language we use can quite literally create and shape our perceptions of the world, as I discussed in my original Language is a virus post. One of the most striking examples I cited in that link was Guugu Yimithirr, an aboriginal language that has no words for relative direction. Instead, they refer to everything based upon where it is relative to actual cardinal directions.

In other words, if you ask someone who speaks this language where you should sit, they won’t say, “In the chair on your left.” Rather, they’ll say something like, “In the chair to the north.” Or south, or east, or west. And a speaker of the language will know what that means, whether they can see outside or not.

Quick — right now, if someone said “Point east,” could you do it without thinking?

And that is how languages can change thoughts and perceptions.

But, sometimes — honestly, far too often — language can change perceptions to create tribalism and hostility, and during this plague year, that has suddenly become a huge topic of debate over a simple change of one C word in a phrase.

I’m writing, of course, about “coronavirus” vs. “Chinese virus.” And the debate is this: Is the latter phrase racist, or just a statement of fact?

One reporter from a rather biased organization did try to start the “it’s not” narrative with the stupidest question ever asked: “Mr. President, do you consider the term ‘Chinese food’ to be racist because it is food that originated from China?”

There are just two problems with this one. The first is that what Americans call “Chinese food” did not, in fact, originate in China. It was the product of Chinese immigrants in America who, being mostly men, didn’t know how to cook, and didn’t have access to a lot of the ingredients from back home. So… they improvised and approximated, and “Chinese food” was created by Chinese immigrants starting in San Francisco in the 19th century.

Initially, it was cuisine meant only for Chinese immigrants because racist Americans wouldn’t touch it, but when Chinatowns had sprung up in other cities, it was New York’s version that finally lured in the hipster foodies of the day to try it, and they were hooked.

In short, “Chinese food” was a positive and voluntary contribution to American culture, and the designation here is merely descriptive, so not racist. “Chinese virus” is a blatant misclassification at best and a definite attempt at a slur at worst, with odds on the latter.

But we’ve seen this with diseases before.

When it comes to simple misidentification of place of origin, let’s look back to almost exactly a century ago, when the Spanish flu went pandemic. From 1918 to 1919, it hit every part of the world, infected 500 million people and killed 50 million.

A little perspective: At the time, the world’s population was only 1.8 billion, so this represents an infection rate of 28% and a mortality rate among the infected of 2.8%. If COVID-19 has similar statistics — and it seems to — then that means this pandemic will infect 2.1 billion people and kill 211 million.

By the way, while the 1918 pandemic was very fatal to children under 5 and adults over 65, it also hit one other demographic particularly hard: 20 to 40 year-olds.

So if you’re in that age range and think that COVID-19 won’t kill you, think again — particularly if you smoke or vape or have asthma, and don’t take the quarantine seriously. And remember: the rich and world leaders are not immune either — not now and not then.

The president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, was infected in the 1918 H1N1 pandemic in 1919, and while he survived, this assault on his health probably led to the stroke he had late in that year, an incident that was covered up by his wife, with the help of the president’s doctor. The First Lady became de facto president for the remainder of his second term.

In modern times, the first world leader to test positive for coronavirus was Prince Albert II of Monaco, followed not long after by Prince Charles and Boris Johnson. Of course, I’m writing these words a bit ahead of when you’ll read them, so who knows what will have happened by then.

In medical circles, the name “Spanish Flu” has been abandoned, and that particular pandemic is now known as H1N1, which I’m sure looks really familiar to you, because this has been the standard nomenclature for flu viruses for a while: H#N#, sans location, animal, or occupation, more on which in a minute.

But first, let’s get to the reasons behind naming a disease after a place. The H1N1 Pandemic was a simple case of mistaken identity and also contingent upon that whole “Great War” stuff going on in Europe.

See, other countries had been hit by it first, but in the interests of the old dick-waving “Gotta appear strong before our enemies” toxic masculinity, all of them suppressed the news. It wasn’t until Spain started seeing it in their citizens and, because they were neutral, they announced outbreaks, that the world suddenly pointed fingers and said, “Ooh… this came from Spain. Hence, it’s the Spanish flu.”

Except, not. Ironically, it seems now that the Spanish flu originated in… China. Although that’s according to historians. Virologists, on the other hand, have linked it to an H1 strain later identified in pigs in Iowa in the U.S.

Either way, all of the countries involved in WW I, aka “The Great War,” kept mum about it.

So the name “Spanish flu” was a simple mistake. On the other hand, the names of other diseases actually are outright xenophobic or racist, and we only have to look as far  as syphilis to see why.

Basically, syphilis is an STI that was the most feared of its kind until… AIDS, because syphilis was not treatable or curable until penicillin was discovered in 1928 — although it was not produced on a mass scale until 1945, thanks to needs created by WW II, and facilitated by the War Production Board.

Hm. Sound familiar?

But the reason it became known as the French disease outside of France was that it began to spread after Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494-95 to reclaim a kingdom he thought should be his. It was eventually so devastating that Charles had to take his troops home, and so it began to spread in France and across Europe.

Since it first showed up in French soldiers, it was quickly dubbed the French disease in Italy and England, although the French preferred to call it the Italian disease. In reality, it most likely originated in the New World, and was brought back to Europe by… Columbus and his Spanish soldiers, who then somehow managed to spread it to the French as they worked for them as mercenaries.

Hm. STI. A bunch of male soldiers. I wonder how that worked, exactly.

And I am totally destroying my future google search suggestions by researching all of this for you, my loyal readers, just so you know! Not to mention that I can’t wait to see what sort of ads I start getting on social media. “Confidential STI testing!” “Get penicillin without a prescription.” “These three weird tricks will cure the STI. Doctors hate them!”

But the naming of diseases all came to a head almost five years ago when the World Health Organization (WHO)  finally decided, “You know what? We shouldn’t name diseases after people, places, animals, occupations, or things anymore, because that just leads to all kinds of discrimination and offense, and who needs it?”

This directly resulted from the backlash against the naming of the last disease ever named for a place, despite the attempt to obfuscate that in its official terminology. Remember MERS, anyone?  No? That one came about in 2012, was first identified in Saudi Arabia, and was named Middle East respiratory syndrome.

Of course, it didn’t help when things were named swine flu or avian flu, either. A lot of pigs and birds died over those designations. So away went such terminology, especially because of the xenophobic and racist connotations of naming a disease after an entire country or people.

Of course, some antiquated folk don’t understand why it’s at the least racist and at the most dangerous to name diseases the old way, as evinced by the editorial tone of this article from a right-wing publication like The Federalist. But they actually kind of manage to prove the point that yes, such terminology is out of fashion, because the only 21st century example they can list is the aforementioned MERS.

The most recent one before that? Lyme disease, named for Lyme, Connecticut, and designated in… the mid-70s. Not exactly the least racist of times, although this disease was named for a pretty white-bread area.

The only other examples of diseases named for countries on their list: the aforementioned Spanish flu, Japanese encephalitis, named in 1871 (seriously, have you ever heard of that one?); and the German measles, identified in the 18th century, although more commonly known as rubella.

So, again — it’s a list that proves the exact opposite of what it set out to do, and calling coronavirus or COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” or “Chinese disease” is, in fact, racist as hell. And it won’t save a single life.

But calling it that will certainly endanger lives by causing hate crimes — because language is a virus, and when people are infected by malignant viruses, like hate speech, the results can be deadly.

Inoculate yourselves against them with education if possible. Quarantine yourselves against them through critical thinking otherwise. Most of all, through these trying times, stay safe — and stay home!

Image source: Coronavirus Disease 2019 Rotator Graphic for (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez)

“Sit” by any other name

In what now seems like another lifetime, I used to write for Dog Whisperer Cesar Millan’s website. Here is an article originally published in two parts under the heading Dogs and Language, Part 1: ¿Se Habla Spaniel? And Part 2: Sprechen Sie Dachshund?

If you’re bilingual, have you trained your dog in more than one language? If you only speak one language, have you ever tried nonsense words on your dog? Either way, the purpose of this exercise is to separate the language you speak from what you’re communicating to your dog.

Whether you’re bilingual or monolingual, for this exercise you will need to come up with a list of words in a language you’ve never used with your dog before. Basically, you will substitute the words your dog knows with words your dog has never heard.

Go on. Dig up that high school Spanish. Go to an online translator, pick a random language, and make a list. Make up meaningless words. The important point is this: pick one word in the new language and match it to a something your dog knows.

For the next week, only use the replacement words whenever you would use the familiar ones — but think the familiar word while saying the new one. It also helps if the new words don’t sound like the old commands — choosing the German “sitz!” to replace the English “sit” wouldn’t really work, but using another word for sit that sounds nothing like it would be ideal.

If you’ve done this exercise right, very soon after you change the words, you should find your dog responding to them without hesitation, as if you’re still speaking the language they know.

What’s going on here?

If you’ve kept your intent the same and used the new words in the same context as the old, then your dog isn’t listening to what you say at all; she’s paying attention to your energy and body language — and your expectations.

Dogs are all about expectations. Groups of dogs work as a unit, instinctively, and follow the leader by sensing and mimicking body language. If you still don’t believe this, then try the following exercise.

Silence is golden

The instructions for this week are simpler, but also more difficult. For one week, use all your usual commands on your dog, but… you cannot say a word. You can use gestures, posture, and facial expressions. You just cannot say words or make sounds. If it helps, you can pretend to say the words in your head, but that’s it.

In each case, make sure that you have your dog’s attention — they should be looking at you calmly, and making full eye contact. But, once that’s achieved, communicate away in silence. You will probably feel the need to move your hands and arms. Go ahead and do so. You will probably feel stupid and nothing will happen for the first few tries. Don’t give up.

If you remain calm and focused, it won’t be long before your dog understands and responds. It shouldn’t take more than a day or two before your dog follows is picking up on what you’re telling him without a word, and before this doesn’t feel so strange and awkward for you. But, by the end of the week, you should be able to speak to your dog from across the room with merely eye contact and facial expression.

What’s going on here?

Again, in nature, dogs do not communicate with words. When they communicate with growls or barks, they really aren’t speaking to each other. The tone of a bark or growl is produced by a dog’s energy and body language, so such sounds are really more a communication of “How I feel right now” as an indicator of pain, danger, excitement, etc.

When one dog wants another to sit, it doesn’t make any sound. It will merely walk toward that dog while presenting as large a posture as possible, and bump into it if the message is not received. If the message is still not received, then a couple of well-placed paws will probably put the errant dog in line.

In any case, the path to forming that deeper connection with your dog or dogs begins with learning how to communicate like a dog, rather than in working against that and forcing your dog to communicate like a human.

Leave the human words behind, and you will develop an even stronger bond with your beloved canine. In return, your dog will love you even more for understanding it, and using its own language.

Stupid human tricks for becoming better leaders

Anything that will put you in closer touch with your own body or improve your human communication skills will help you to become more in tune with your dog. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Yoga: You don’t have to be as flexible as a gymnast to do yoga, and there are varying levels and classes. Instructors are usually willing to accommodate your abilities, and doing all these weird stretches will help you get in touch with your body, and your body language.
  2. Dance/Aerobics: Again, you don’t have to be Fred Astaire to dance. Look around, and find something fitting your experience. Tap and Ballet are probably only for people who’ve had some dance training, but things like ballroom, waltz, or country line are probably accessible to anyone. If you don’t want to do dance in quite so formal a way, then look for an aerobics class.
  3. Improv: Although an aspect of theatre which frequently involves words, improv classes are excellent for teaching you the skill of listening, as well as teaching you to be constantly in the moment. Since dogs are also constantly living in the moment, improv is a good way to learn to be more dog-like.
  4. Volunteer: As in volunteer at your local animal shelter, where you’ll get to interact with lots of dogs that are not your own. Practice using the silent command method on each of them. Practice calm, assertive energy while walking them. Also inquire with your local veterinarians to find out if they need volunteers; ask your own vet if they will trade volunteer time for medical care.
  5. Read to Kids: No, really. Contact your local libraries and elementary schools to find out whether they have reading programs. And, although the above dog advice leans toward the non-verbal, reading to a room full of five-year-olds and keeping their attention is good practice, since many studies indicate that adult dogs operate at the same intellectual level as a human five-year-old. It’s not just the words keeping them pinned to their seats… what non-verbal cues are doing the job?

If all of the above fail, then there’s this: Take your dog on a long walk, in silence — but don’t forget to bring plenty of water for both of you. Your dog will let you know when you’ve walked long enough and it’s time to go home. Before that, your dog will let you know what it’s like to be a dog. Listen to the silence and learn.

Postscript: I actually wrote this piece, and included #3 up there, long before I started doing improv. Weird. I was giving myself future advice, I see.

Photo: Author’s dog Sheeba, taken by Stephen M. Grossman.