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.

Dog talk

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, Daisy, 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, Daisy 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 Daisy 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. Daisy 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 Daisy 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:

“SorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorryokayImout.”

And Daisy 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, Daisy 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, Daisy 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 Daisy, but a brief side trip through dog number two, Shadow. I adopted her when she was about a year old, exactly eleven days after Daisy 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 Daisy, 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 Daisy. 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. Daisy 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.

Oops.

But… all of that said, the real point here is this: What I learned from Daisy 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 Daisy 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 it 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 Daisy 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: Daisy, Shadow, and Sheeba © Jon Bastian

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

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

Words you might be using incorrectly

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

 

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?

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…

British and American words that mean different things

In 1887 in the book The Canterville Ghost, Oscar Wilde wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.” He was speaking from the point of view of an Irishman living in Britain, but he was more correct than not. Like Spanish in Latin America vs. Spanish in Spain, there are some big differences between the American and British versions. Let’s leave aside spelling and terms that are mutually unknown (oven vs. cooker, for example), and just look at the words that, while they look the same in both countries, mean something very different depending upon which side of the Atlantic (aka “The Pond”) you’re on.

Clothing and Accessories

  1. Jumper — In the UK, this is a piece of outerwear, frequently knit, and designed to be worn over a shirt or blouse. In the U.S., we call it a sweater. To us, a jumper is someone who commits suicide by diving off of a high place.
  2. Fancy dress — In the UK, this is costume party, akin to what Americans would have for Halloween. In the U.S., this refers to a very formal occasion, usually with men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns. The Oscar ceremony is American fancy dress.
  3. Trainers — In the UK, these are shoes, generally of the type Americans would call tennis shoes or sneakers. In the U.S., a trainer is a person who screams at you in a gym in order to motivate you to work out.
  4. Pants — In the UK, you wear your pants under your trousers, which we call underwear. In the U.S., pants are your trousers.
  5. Braces — In the UK, braces keep your pants up and we call them suspenders, In the U.S., braces are something to straighten your teeth.
  6. Vest — In the UK, this is a sleeveless T-shirt meant as an undergarment, something Americans might call an A-front or (very disturbingly) a “wife-beater.” In the U.S., a vest is part of a three-piece suit, worn under the jacket.
  7. Purse — In the UK, this is a wallet kept in a handbag. In the U.S. it’s a bag to keep your wallet in.
  8. Boob tube — In the UK, this is a garment with no sleeves that is basically held up by friction, hope, and boobs. In the U.S., it is an old slang word for television.

Food

  1. Chips — In the UK, these are French fries; in the U.S. they are thin, crunchy salty snacks made from fried potatoes. American chips are British crisps.
  2. Biscuit — In the UK, a sweet treat made of baked dough, and you might find chocolate chips or jam in it. In the U.S., a biscuit is a dense chunk of buttery dough, generally not sweet, and frequently associated with Southern cooking, as in biscuits and gravy.
  3. Banger — In the UK, a banger is a sausage. In the U.S., it’s a gang member.

Things

  1. Solicitor — This is a type of lawyer in the UK, and probably useful. In the U.S., it’s anybody who goes door-to-door to try to sell you something, and is considered very annoying. The category includes salespeople and Jehovah’s Witnesses, among other pests.
  2. Boot — In the UK, this is the storage space in the back of your car. In the U.S., it’s a type of shoe that goes on your foot and usually extends at least to your ankle if not higher.
  3. Bonnet — In the UK, this is the thing that covers the engine of your car. In the U.S., it covers your head, but only if you’re a baby or a rather quaint woman.
  4. Trolley — UK version, this is what you put your purchases into while you’re at Tesco (that’s a grocery store); in the U.S., this is a form of public transit that frequently but not always runs on rails down city streets. San Francisco is famous for its trolley cars.
  5. Coach — In the UK, you’ll take this to transport a bunch of people from one place to another, although it won’t be called Greyhound. In the U.S., this is the person in charge of whipping a sports team into shape.
  6. Fag — In the UK, it’s a cigarette. In the U.S., it’s very derogatory term for a homosexual male and should be avoided. (Although in a lot of parts of the U.S., smoking has also become very verboten, which is a good thing.)
  7. Dummy — Use this to keep your UK baby quiet and happy as they suck on it. In the U.S., use it in a store to model clothes or as a general human-shaped object for whatever purpose.
  8. Comforter — Another word in the UK for a dummy. In the U.S., it’s a duvet, as in a big, stuffed fluffy blanket that goes on top of your sheets.
  9. Bomb — In UK theater and media, a huge hit. In U.S. theater and media, a huge failure. Note, though, that “the bomb” (or “da bomb”) in the U.S. also refers to a huge hit. Nuance matters here.
  10. Flannel — In the UK, a piece of cloth you use for washing up your face or hands. In the U.S., a type of material, usually plaid, and most often used to make shirts or blankets.
  11. Hamper — Absolutely necessary for carrying your food around for a picnic in Britain; absolutely necessary for carrying around your dirty laundry in the U.S.
  12. Casket — In the UK, this is a small box for jewelry. In the U.S., it’s a big box for a dead body.

Places

  1. First floor — In the UK, one story up above the ground. In the U.S., the story that’s on the ground
  2. A&E — In the UK, where you go for urgent care of an injury (“accident and emergency”), what’s called the ER in the U.S. In the U.S., A&E is a cable network showing Arts and Entertainment

Unfortunate Confusions

  1. Rubber — In the UK, the thing, usually on the back of a pencil, used to rub out mistakes. In the U.S., the thing you put on your dong before sex in order to avoid mistakes.
  2. Hoo-ha — In the UK, this is an argument or disagreement. In the U.S., it’s slang for a vagina
  3. Pissed — In the UK, you’re drunk. In the U.S., you’re angry.
  4. Blow off — A very British fart. A very American way to skip a commitment or appointment without making any excuses or giving warning.

And there you have it. Can you think of any other examples? Share them in the comments!