Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.

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.


  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.


  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.


  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!

Talky Tuesday: Trying trilingualism

As I’ve mentioned here before, I took four levels of Spanish over five years in school middle and high school, so I ran out of classes at the end of my junior year. Being a total language nerd, I then took one year of high school German, followed by a semester of University German.

I swear that in the first week in Uni we learned more than I had in the first semester in high school.

I didn’t pursue either language in college because I focused on other areas, with a Major and double minors. Consequently, I forgot a lot of both.

Of course, it didn’t help that our Spanish 4 teacher pulled a fast one on us. She asked the class to vote on whether we wanted to study language (i.e., grammar, spelling, etc.) or literature. The vote was unanimous for language, but she taught literature anyway, figuring we’d learn the language that way.

Narrator’s voice: “We didn’t.”

We didn’t exactly start with the Spanish-language equivalent of Dr. Seuss, which didn’t help. Imagine taking a recent immigrant who’s only studied English for a couple of years and then tossing them Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.

They’d do what we did, which was go to the local library at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN), which we had access to use because we were public school students in California, although we couldn’t check out any books.

What we could do, though, was make copies of them, so we would go down there, find the English translation of the latest work, and either read it there or copy it so we could sound like we knew what we were talking about.

It was really a total waste of a year.

But then I started learning Spanish again as an adult about seven or eight years ago, starting with Duolingo as a refresher, and then using immersion via radio, magazines, TV, and so on. Listening to Spanish language stations in the car on my commute actually turned out to be the breakthrough for me.

And so, on my own, in about the same time I’d studied in high school, I achieved the level of fluency that I never did back then. I also got hooked on the unbroken streak on Duolingo — mine is currently six years, seven months, and about three weeks, although I was on Duo for a while before I started the streak.

But the thing is, Duolingo is pretty basic, and I’ve pretty much shot past anything they can teach me now, including all of the stories. So, recently, I decided to try something different.

I’d use Duolingo to learn German, but I would do it from Spanish. In technical terms, this would be learning my L3 in my L2. It’s actually working, because it forces me to not think in English at all, but there are some interesting collisions that happen between all three languages, because they have some words that are close and some that aren’t, and some that mean completely different things on two or all three of the languages.

A big one that constantly screws me up is “es.” In Spanish, “es” is the third person singular form of one of the two verbs for “to be.” In German, it is the third person neutral pronoun “it,” while the third person singular of the verb “to be” is “ist.”

In Spanish, you don’t have to use the pronouns because the verb endings imply them. In German, you always have to use the pronouns, the same as in English. (Well, proper English. We can omit them slangily.)

So the sentence “It is good” in Spanish could just be “Es bueno.” In German, it would be “Es ist gut.”

I can’t tell you how many times in a lesson I’ve started with that es and my brain shifts to Spanish right there, so I’ll enter “es gut” and get it wrong.

The other big difference is that German has three genders, while Spanish only has two — well, technically, but I won’t get into that here. The thing is, just as with Spanish, German grammatical genders bear no relationship to human gender.

That’s why a young boy is masculine while a young girl is neuter, and animal genders seem to have been assigned more on psychology than anything else. Bears and dogs are masculine, while cats and ducks are feminine, and horses are neuter.

I know a lot of English speakers who struggle with learning Spanish articles, but they’re really a lot simpler than German. For definite articles (aka “the”), Spanish has masculine and feminine singular (el, la) and their plural counterparts (los, las).

The only sneaky one is the combination that adds “to” before the masculine pronoun. To avoid having an “a” sound before an “e,” a + el becomes al.

Fun fact: this is the Arabic word for “the,” and wound up in a lot of words borrowed into Spanish and also English. Whenever you see one, realize that the original word was “the (something),” q.v. algebra, Alhambra, alcohol, etc.

Anyway, that gives us just five options in Spanish: el, al, la, los, las.

German starts out with three definite articles, masculine, feminine, and neuter: der, die, das. But the plural versions are not as straight-forward. In order, they are die, die, die. (By the way, that’s pronounced “dee,” and not the way it looks like it would be in English.)

So that one is simple, but there’s a catch. Unlike Spanish, German articles change as grammatical case does. That is, it depends on whether a noun is the subject of a sentence, or whether it’s the direct or indirect object, or has a relationship to another noun in the sentence — usually possession, but it can be descriptive as well.

That gives sixteen possible definite articles and, while some of the words repeat — like “die” taking up to spots above — you have to remember which ones go where.

Of course, language isn’t all difficulty, and some of the fun comes in when a sentence in one language  sounds like something filthy in another when it’s not.

For example, “Die Mädchen haben Hüte.“  Knowing that Mädchen means girl or girls (das or die is the only clue), this could easily sound like a reference to the restaurant Hooters, but it’s not.

It simply means “The girls have hats.”

Another, which sounds even filthier, is “Der Junge isst Nudeln.” If you’re an English speaker, you can be forgiven for thinking this means “The young man is nude.” Nope. It’s just a boy eating pasta.

In German, “bald” is not hairless (“calvo” in Spanish) but “soon.” And at the party last night, you might have seen Brunhilde rockin’ her Rock, which is a reference neither to stones nor to music, but the German word for skirt. (Also, pronounced with a long O, so “roke,” not “raak.”)

No, I have no idea why a German skirt is a Rock. The Spanish word makes so much more sense, really: “falda.” It just sounds more comfortable.

How the structure of questions differs between the three languages is interesting, too. In English and German, generally speaking, questions are in “VSO” order, meaning verb, subject, object: “Is Walter from Indiana?” or “Ist Walter aus Indiana.”

In Spanish, you have the option to do either, but it’s far more common to leave it as SVO and let inflection do the rest: “¿Walter es de Indiana?”, although “¿Es Walter de Indiana?” would be just as valid.

The key, again, is the inflection, with the rising tone giving away that it’s a question and not a statement, and this is why Spanish alone among the three has the upside-down punctuation at the beginning of the phrase. That’s so a reader will know when they see subject-verb that they are not reading a statement.

Finally, being the mongrel that it is, English goes both ways. The most normal way is VSO, but we can also use SVO to express surprise and, again, it’s all a matter of inflection. “Walter is from Indiana?” (Roll eyes, clutch pearls.)

In German, that construction would only ever be a statement of fact.

One other interesting thing about German, although I’ve seen it kind of fade away. They capitalize their nouns. Er, sorry… The German People capitalize all the Nouns!

We used to do this in English, and you can see it if you go back and read documents written by the Founders around the time the U.S. was born, the phrase “We, the People” being one of the more famous examples.

But even then, it was fading out as a standard and the capitalization was mostly used to highlight Principles that were Important and Abstract… Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness and the like. And note that in that sentence, pursuit, although it is a noun, is not capitalized.

The funny thing is that this seemed to have developed in German in the opposite way from how it vanished from English. They started out by only capitalizing the nouns referring to important concepts or people (like König, or King), but then started doing it all of them. It started in the 16th century and became official in the 17th, about a hundred years before English moved in the opposite direction.

And Spanish took an even more opposite extreme: A lot of what are capitalized as proper nouns in English are not in Spanish, like days of the week or names of months. It’s the same with titles of movies, plays, and books. Only the first word and any proper nouns are capitalized. Otherwise, nope.

For example, La guerra de las galaxias aka Star Wars: A New Hope.

I suppose it’s time to leave you with a joke that my University German professor, the late, great Frau Schulz-Bischof, told us.

A Spaniard, an American, and a German are talking about language.

The American says, “English is the most beautiful language in the world. Just look. We have the word ‘butterfly.’”

“It’s nothing,” the Spaniard replies. “Spanish is the most beautiful. In my language, your butterfly is ‘una mariposa.’”

There’s a long pause, and then the two turn to look at the German, who finally just blurts out, “And what is wrong with ‘Schmetterling?’”

She was from Hamburg, by the way, so she gets to tell that joke. Or got to.

Image source: Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“War is not healthy for children and other living things.” Except…

The title of this article comes from an incredibly iconic poster that was created during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Specifically, it was created by printmaker Lorriane Schneider in 1967, and was inspired by her concern that her oldest son would be drafted and die in a war that many Americans considered unnecessary.

However, the Vietnam War is a strange exception and beginning point for a tidal change in American wars. Post-Vietnam, the only benefits wars seem to have given us are more efficient (although not cheaper) ways to kill people, and that sucks. (Incidentally, the Korean War is technically not a war. It also technically never ended.)

But… as weird as it may sound, a lot of the major wars prior to Vietnam actually gave American society weird and unexpected benefits. Yeah, all of that death and killing and violence were terrible, but like dandelions breaking through urban sidewalks to bloom and thrive, sometimes, good stuff does come in the aftermath of nasty wars. Here are five examples.

The American Revolution, 1775-1783

The Benefit: The First Amendment (and the rest of the Constitution)

By the beginning of the 18th century, Europe was having big problems because Monarchs and the Church were all tied up together, the state dictated religion, and so on. It came to an extreme with Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1714, which barred any Catholic from ever taking the throne. The end result of this was that the next in line turned out to be the future George I, son of Sophia. Sophia, however, was an Elector of Hanover or, in other words, German. Queen Victoria was a direct descendant of George I, and spoke both English and German. In fact her husband, Prince Albert, was German.

But the net result of all the tsuris over the whole Catholic vs. Protestant thing in Europe, on top of suppression of the press by governments, led to the Founders making sure to enshrine freedom of speech and the wall between church and state in the very first Amendment to the Constitution, before anything else. To be fair, though, England did start to push for freedom of the press and an end to censorship in the 17th century, so that’s probably where the Founders got that idea. But the British monarch was (and still is) the head of the Church of England, so the score is one up, one down.

The War of 1812, 1812-1815

The Benefit: Permanent allegiance between the U.S. and Britain

This was basically the sequel to the American Revolution, and came about because of continued tensions between the two nations. Britain had a habit of capturing American sailors and forcing them into military duty against the French, for example, via what were vernacularly called “press gangs.” They also supported Native Americans in their war against the fairly new country that had been created by invading their land. So again, one up, one down. And the second one, which is the down vote to America, is rather ironic, considering that the Brits were basically now helping out the people whose land had been stolen by… the first English settlers to get there.

And, honestly, if we’re really keeping score, the U.S. has two extra dings against it in this one: We started it by declaring war — even if there were legitimate provocations from Britain — and then we invaded Canada.

But then a funny thing happened. The U.S. won the war. By all rights it shouldn’t have. It was a new country. It really didn’t have the military to do it. It was going up against the dominant world power of the time, and one that would soon become an empire to boot.

The war technically ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, but there was still the Battle of New Orleans to come after that, and it happened because news of the end of the war hadn’t gotten there yet. In that one, the U.S. kicked Britain’s ass so hard that they then basically said, “Remember all the concessions we made in that treaty? Yeah, not. LOL.”

In a lot of ways, the war was really a draw, but it did get the British to remove any military presence from the parts of North America that were not Canada, and opened the door to American expansionism across the continent. It also helped to establish the boundary between the U.S. and Canada, which is to this day the world’s longest undefended border. Finally, it cemented the relationship of the U.S. and Britain as allies and BFFs, which definitely came in handy in the 20th century during a couple of little European dust-ups that I’ll be getting to shortly.

The American Civil War, 1861-1865

The Benefit: Mass-manufactured bar soap

Now in comparison to the first two, this one may seem trivial and silly, but it actually does have ramifications that go far beyond the original product itself. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of bar soap now or go for the liquid kind (my preference), because both were really born out of the same need and process.

Once upon a time, soap-making was one of the many onerous tasks that the women of the house were expected to do, along with cleaning, cooking, sewing, canning, laundry, ironing, taking care of the menfolk (husbands and sons, or fathers and brothers), and generally being the literal embodiment of the term “drudge.” But soap-making was so arduous a task in terms of difficulty and general nastiness that it was something generally done only once or twice a year, basically making enough to last six or twelve months.

To make soap involved combining rendered fat and lye. (Remember Fight Club?) The fat came easy, since people at the time slaughtered their own animals for food, so they just ripped it off of the cow or pig or whatever meat they’d eaten. The lye came from leeching water through ashes from a fire made from hardwood, believe it or not, and since wood was pretty much all they had to make fires for cooking, ashes were abundant. Yes, I know, it’s really counter-intuitive that something so caustic could be made that way, but there you go. The secret is in the potassium content of the wood. Fun fact: the terms hard- and softwood have nothing to do with the actual wood itself, but rather with how the trees reproduce. (And I’ll let your brain make the joke so I don’t have to.)

So soap was a household necessity, but difficult to make. Now, while William Procter and James Gamble started to manufacture soap in 1838, it was still a luxury product at the time. It wasn’t until a lot of men went to war in 1861 that women had to run homesteads and farms on top of all of their other duties, and so suddenly manufactured soap started to come into demand. Especially helpful was Procter and Gamble providing soap to the Union Army, so that soldiers got used to it and wanted it once they came home.

Obviously, easier access to soap helped with hygiene but, more importantly, the industry advertised like hell, and from about the 1850s onward, selling soap was big business. There’s a reason that we call certain TV shows “soap operas,” after all, and that’s because those were the companies that sponsored the shows.

World War I, 1914-1918 (U.S. involvement, 1917-1918)

The Benefit: Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote

It’s probably common knowledge — or maybe not — that two big things that happened because of World War I were an abundance of prosthetic limbs and advances in reconstructive and plastic surgery. However, neither of these were really invented because of this conflict, which “only” led to improved surgical techniques or better replacement limbs.

The real advance is sort of an echo of the rise of soap via the Civil War, in the sense that the former conflict freed women from one nasty restriction: Having no say in government. And, as usually happens when the boys march off to do something stupid, the women have to take up the reins at home, and sometimes this gets noticed. It certainly did in the case of WW I, and suffragettes wisely exploited the connection between women and the homefront war effort. Less than two years after the conflict officially ended, women were given the right to vote on August 26, 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hey! Only 144 years too late. Woohoo!

World War II, 1939-1945 (U.S. involvement, 1941-1945)

The Benefit: The rise of the American middle class

As World War II was starting to move to an end, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 was passed into law. It was designed to assist returning service members via things like creating the VA hospital system, providing subsidized mortgages, assisting with educational expenses, and providing unemployment. It was also a direct reaction to the less-than-fantastic reception returning veterans of World War I had received.

In fact, one of FDR’s goals in creating what is commonly known as the G.I. Bill was to expand the middle class, and it succeeded. Suddenly, home ownership was within reach of people who hadn’t been able to obtain it before and, as a result, new housing construction exploded and, with it, the emergence of suburbs all across the country. With education, these veterans found better jobs and higher incomes, and that money went right back into the economy to buy things like cars, TVs, and all the other accoutrements of suburban living. They also started having children — it’s not called the Baby Boom for nothing — and those children benefited with higher education themselves. The rates of people getting at least a Bachelor’s Degree began a steady climb in the 1960s, right when this generation was starting to graduate high school. At the same time, the percentage of people who hadn’t even graduated from high school plunged.

The top marginal tax rates of all time in the U.S. happened in 1944 and 1945, when they were at 94%. They remained high — at least 91% — throughout the 1950s. Oddly, despite the top rate in the 1940s being higher, the median and average top tax rates in the 1950s were higher — about 86% for both in the 40s and 91% for both in the 50s. The economy was booming, and in addition to paying for the war, those taxes provided a lot of things for U.S. Citizens.

Even as his own party wanted to dismantle a lot of FDR’s New Deal policies, President Eisenhower forged ahead with what he called “Modern Republicanism.” He signed legislation and started programs that did things like provide government assistance to people who were unemployed, whether simply for lack of work or due to age or illness. Other programs raised the minimum wage, increased the scope of Social Security, and founded the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In a lot of ways, it was like the G.I. Bill had been extended to everyone.

How to be a good customer

Since we may or may not be soon emerging from lockdown, here are some friendly reminders on how to behave when you’re on the side of the counter that the cash register isn’t. Of course, you should always practice these whether you’re interacting with customer service in person, online, or by phone. 

I’ve been doing a lot of customer service again recently in two different jobs with very different customer bases, but the issues all boil down to the same things. Now, a lot gets made about whether a business has good or bad customer service, and that’s how it should be. If a company provides things to the public, then it’s on them to make sure that the public has their questions answered and needs met.

But, sometimes, customer service can only be as good as the customer, and I’ve seen many a bad online review ripping on some company’s customer service that, in its own internal vagueness and clear misinterpretation, turns out to be proof of its own opposite. That service wasn’t awful because the employee was bad. It was awful because the reviewer was a bad customer.

My current perspective is from two POVs. My day job is with a small company that provides a professional service to people, one that’s very important and necessary to them, is often time-sensitive, and involves a lot of complicated and legally mandated stuff which can often be totally incomprehensible to the layperson.

My side gig is at a live theater, mostly running the box office but sometimes taking over as house manager, which means running the theater and supervising the ushers as well (and sometimes it’s both jobs at once, oh joy!). This theater has two venues in it — a large 360 seat main stage, and a smaller 99 seat performance space. The company I work for has the smaller space.

So I’ll call them DJ (for day job) and Theater from here on out to distinguish. My distant past customer service gigs were for a webstore selling stuff for a minor celebrity, so I’ll call that eTail. Finally, way back in college and just after, I did the obligatory working in retail shtick, for both a major (now defunct) kind of Target-like (but not them) store, and a family owned chain of pharmacies. Well, chain of two back then. It’s a lot bigger now. I’d call the first one Hell and the second one Really Fun, but they probably aren’t going to enter into this. If I do refer to them, they’ll be simply Retail.

Damn. “Retail” is one of those words that looks like it’s spelled wrong the more you think about it, and it sounds more like a veterinary emergency procedure than anything else. But I do digress. Anon, here are some hints and tips to help you be a better customer; and there’s a funny thing that happens when you do this. You get better customer service.

Be prepared

This applies whether you’re making a phone call, going to a store for a specific product, or going to a live event. Gather your information, write it down or memorize it, and try to anticipate the questions you’re going to be asked. For example, if you need a particular toner cartridge or replacement water filter or other whozits or whatsamajiggy for your jimjang, check your manuals or look at the old ones or search online, and get those part numbers. Barring that, at least get the model number of the thing you’re sticking it into and the name of the thing you’re sticking into it. “I need a toner cartridge for a Balzamo BR-521 laser printer” is a lot more helpful than “I need the thing you stick into a printer so it can print.” Hint: depending on the type of printer, that can be anywhere from one to five different things.

If you’re going out to see a show, then take a moment to learn the exact title of that show. Also, it’d be nice if you’d take a moment beforehand to check out the venue and see if they have multiple shows at around the same time. In my Theater job, I can’t count the number of times we’ve had audience wander over to my box office instead of the clearly marked mainstage Will Call, and initiate a conversation that goes like this:

Them: “I have tickets for the show.”

Me: “Which show?”

Them: “Um… the 8  o’clock show.”

Me: “We have two shows at 8. What’s it called?”

Them: (Blank stare.) “Um… something?”

By the way, as soon as they say “8 o’clock show,” I know they’re here for the mainstage, because our audience always knows the name of our show.

The other rather amusing bane of my existence on the unprepared front? There’s a movie theater across the street and a block south of us. Now, we happen to be in a building that was built as an Art Deco movie palace in the 1920s but has been a live theater since the late 1990s, and it’s even got the name on it, which is not the name of the movie theater at all.

The other one doesn’t even look like a movie theater either. It does have a huge sign with its name on it but, unfortunately, it’s conveniently blocked by a badly placed tree that the city really needs to move. Of course, buildings have street numbers for a reason — and yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people rush in, come up to me, and say, “I have two tickets to (latest stupid comic book movie.)” Sure, you do, but not here.

Meanwhile, if you’re calling my DJ or any similar sort of entity, take a moment to write some notes to yourself. Be prepared to answer these questions or just state these things simply. “I’m calling because… (thing),” thing being you have a question, you got an email or letter from us (please have it in front of you), you want to know the status of something, you want to confirm something, you want to talk to a specific person, you’re returning a call from (person), or something else. Your life and mine will be a lot easier if you start out with simple and specific. If you have a question, then elaborate slightly. “I have a question” is useless. “I have a question about… (specific thing)” is much more useful.

Your opening should be no more than “Hi, (statement),” and that statement should be a single sentence covering one of the above. The exception is the statement, “I’m not sure what I need to ask,” which is fine, more on which in a moment. The point is, if you give me a clear, concise, and succinct statement, then odds are about 95% that I’ll know what to ask you, what to tell you, or how to direct you next to make the process go quickly for both of this. And this is even true if you tell me you don’t know what you need to ask for, because then I can go through all the above and find out whether you got a call or email or are a new referral or just have a question about something.

Fast example: “Hi, I got an email with the subject line, ‘We need to update your zoiberflaster.’ What’s that about?” Ooh, a specific. And, in this case, I’ll probably know about the email, will pop open a spreadsheet, and say, “I can help you with that. What’s your last name?” I look up the info, ask you a question, get an answer, boom, done, quick.

Or, “Hi, I got an email from (person).” Also cool. “Great, let me see if they’re available. And, your name?” Boom, boom, done. Yay!

Compare and contrast to:

Them: “I got an email from you.”

Me: “Okay, about what?”

Them: “Oh, I don’t know. It’s on my computer, and I’m on my phone.”

Me: “Do you remember who sent it or the subject?”

Them: “No.”

Me: (Silently mouthing curse words). “Can you find the email right now, or would you like to leave a message and we’ll call you back?”

Remember: If I didn’t send the email, I can’t just magically open Outlook and see who did. Email doesn’t work like that unless you’re an admin. (Hint: 99.9% of people who will answer the phone are not.)

Other things you should not do: Launch into a monologue and not let me ask you anything, which happens far more often than not. And sorry, but, “Hi, I’m (mumbles name) and (five hundred word autobiography with no pauses)” does neither of us any good because once you’re done I’m just going to have to ask you to repeat the important parts, which I didn’t get because they were the lost croutons in the word salad you just served up without letting me get a fork in.

And be prepared continues beyond that first exchange. Please have everything I’m likely to ask a question about written down and in front of you. Always. Hell, if you have to write a script for yourself on what and how to ask, go right on ahead. I will not judge you if you sound like you’re reading stuff to me provided that it’s the right stuff. I’ve had to train myself to do this when making these kinds of calls, and it’s worked wonders.

When you’re calling any business entity you have an account with, have that account number right in front of your face. The way things are set up, just saying, “Hi, I’m Betty Smith at 1234 Main Street” won’t cut it, because just about anyone can go online and find out that this is Betty Smith’s address, which could lead to all kinds of mischief, especially if John Jones across the street decides he hates her and gets his wife to call up the power company, pretend to be Betty, and get the electricity shut off.

That’s why you can’t do things like that without knowing that the account number is whatever ridiculously long and complicated thing is printed on your bill or statement or policy or wherever.

Listen and focus, my eyes are up here

On the phone, this most frequently manifests itself as people trying to go on and add extraneous information while I’m trying to ask them a question or give them an answer, so serves as a corollary to number 1: Ask your question, then shut up and listen. I often get people on the phone who will keep going on when I try to ask them something which would make their babbling unnecessary. When you’re calling in, try this trick. Speak one sentence, then stop. The rep on the other end will either explain something more or ask you for something more. Either or, pan comido, easy peasy.

In real life at the Theater, it’s a bit more frustrating, because I’ve frequently had customers who engaged with me to want to buy tickets, but then they’re suddenly texting on their phone or chatting IRL with the friends who came with them. This is the reverse of that bad customer service move I’ve seen happen in retail checkouts, when the clerk ignores the customer to have a conversation with another clerk or to text on their phone, and it’s just as annoying. You’re here to complete a transaction, IRL, and it’s gotta happen with me, so focus and pay attention to the guy you’re talking to, because I’m going to be asking you questions in order to complete the transaction. How many tickets? How are you paying? What’s your name? Should I email you a receipt? Yeah, if you’re yapping to the other Karen you brought with you, I can’t do my job without being rude and interrupting that shit.

Starting out angry never works

It’s a cliché but it’s true: You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. If you start any customer service transaction in full-on loaded for bear mode, you’re not going to get very far for one simple reason. The first person you deal with isn’t going to be all that inclined to help you, and when you become too demanding and unreasonable, they’re just going to kick you up the food-chain, but you’ll have no pull at all and won’t be any threat to the first, because the second level is going to quickly realize what they’re up against. Why? Because the first level who referred them is going to say, “Hey, Jerry, this person on the line is total nut-bag who demanded to speak to a supervisor, but I already explained X, Y, and Z.”

Jerry will sigh, roll his eyes, briefly empathize, and then say, “Okay, got it,” and will proceed to cut this customer off at the knees.

In customer service circles, people like this are known as Flaming Assholes, and they are the ones that give all of us at every level great joy in applying all of our policies and rules in the most legalistic way possible. Hint: If you approach us nicely, treat us like people, and are polite and deferential, then you are probably going to get more than you asked for if it’s a case of something didn’t quite go right — disappointed with this thing but nice about it? Bam! FREE STUFF! But if you fly in like Queen Bitch/Captain A-Hole on Steroids, basically slapping down the help from the get-go, then you’re going to get nowhere and nothing, and every last clause in the fine print is going to be used to shut you down.

No, you’re not always right

The phrase “The customer is always right” was coined a hundred and ten years ago, in 1909, by Henry Selfridge, founder of Selfridge’s Department Stores, but you have to look at it in context. British society at the time (and even now) was very class conscious, so of course the lowly classes who worked as shop girls and stock boys could not possibly know more or be more correct than the rich fops and knobs who shopped there. It was also a marketing slogan with snob appeal.

In reality, though? Nah. In fact, in my experience over all those jobs, I’d say that customers maybe bat about .250 when it comes to getting it right, if that high at all. In any case, refer back to the sugar/vinegar paradigm. No, you’re not always right, and in particular when dealing with things like my DJ, you’re probably about 95% guaranteed to be wrong if you’re just guessing. We told you a thing for reasons, you probably didn’t remember it or write it down properly, please don’t question us when we tell you that thing again. Thank you. We’ll gently correct you and steer you on the right path if you’re nice, and leave you to figure it out on your own if you’re not.

Be aware of the signals I’m sending

One of the things I enjoy about customer service with people is when I can converse casually, connect on a little deeper level, and swap jokes or empathize, as necessary. But I can’t always do it. It depends on current workload.

On the phone, I’d hope it’d be obvious from whether I’m being casual or terse. In person, especially at the Theater, it should be obvious by whether there’s a line of people standing behind you.

So… if you call up and I sound brusque and business-like, play accordingly, and don’t try to lighten it up with jokes or make conversation. On the other hand, if I seem a bit chatty or jokey, then by all means engage, because it means I’ve got time for that and, believe me, when I can get chatty and show personality with a client, it really does make my day better. But if I don’t, please don’t take it personally.

Likewise, in person, if it’s a slow night, then feel free to make bad Dad Jokes (trust me, I’ve heard them all), or start a conversation, or whatever. But, again, if the lobby is more crowded than the International Terminal at LAX the day before Thanksgiving or I seem otherwise occupied, please just do your business, smile, and go. I won’t take it personally! (Exceptions, of course, for all the regulars I’ve gotten to know, but, ironically, they already know not to take up my time if it’s nuts.)

Never try an end-run — we will block you

This one is a common trick tried by sales people, but self-important clients try it too, and I only run into it on the DJ. The conversation typically goes like this:

Me: “Hello, (company name) this is (me), how can I help you?”

Them: “Yeah, I want to talk to (boss).”

Me: “Can I tell him who’s calling?”

Them: (First name). [Never last name; alarm bell]

Me: “And your last name?”

Them: “He knows me.”

Me: “Right, but I still need your last name.”

Them: [Huffy] (Last name.)

Me: [Looking up in system, finding nothing]. “So what is this regarding?”

Them: “Is (boss) there or not?”

Me: “What company are you with?”

Them: (Names company that I quickly google; it’s a sales call.)

Me: “Okay, let me check.” [Put on hold, count to ten] “Sorry, he’s on the line right now, can I get your name and number?”

Them: [Either] (Name and number) or “No, I’ll call back.” Either way, circular file.

Seriously, sales dudes (and it’s always dudes; sales dudettes are honest), if you want to get through, try this: “Hi, I’m (name) from (company) and have this (product) I think your boss might be interested in to increase his sales. Can I talk to him?”

My reply, “No, because it’s busy season, but please give me your info, because if it does increase his sales, he would definitely be interested.”

And see how that becomes a win-win?

The self-important client version follows the same first few steps, until I have enough info to explain to them how what we do works, and that’s usually enough to mollify them and assure them in a positive way that they are not special and don’t get to jump the line just because they called us before we called them.

The golden rule applies here too

Simple, but stupid. Do unto others. So, whether you’re calling customer service or working customer service, treat the person on the other end of that communication the way you’d want to be treated on yours.

Patience is a virtue that can be necessary whether you’re a customer or customer service, but patience can be very easily tried if either the customer or the service — or both — is bad. Whichever one you are, try to be you best.

Image source: Alpha Stock Images, http://alphastockimages.com/

Why you should learn another language (or two or three)

For about as long as I can remember, I’ve been a major language nerd. I think it started when I was about seven years old and discovered that the stationary aisle of the local grocery store sold pocket dictionaries meant for travelers and I wound up buying the entire set because they were within the means of my first-grade allowance. I remember for sure that I had Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Russian. I think that Latin was another one, although I’m not as sure.

This began a life-long adventure, and I collected dictionaries and books on foreign languages left and right. I remember one dictionary that translated twenty-six languages side-by-side, and at its biggest, my library covered everything from Arabic to Vietnamese and nearly everything in between.

Sadly, I lost most of that about a decade ago in an abrupt move. However, all of those same resources are now online, so I didn’t really lose as much as I thought. And, since languages evolve, books may not be the best resource anymore. For example, when I first started learning Spanish, Ch, ll, and rr were considered separate letters, something that the Academia Real Española changed a few years back.

Speaking of school, when I found out on the first day of 7th grade that we had to take a language class and I was assigned to Spanish, I was ecstatic. I studied it for the next four years and when, after my junior year of high school, I had satisfied my language requirement, I said “What the hell?” and took a year of German, followed by another year of German as a Freshman in college. Fun fact: I swear that we learned more in the first two weeks of college German than I had in an entire year of high school German.

Other languages I’ve toyed with over the years, in no particular order: Italian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, Russian, Gaelic, Japanese, and ASL. However, I wouldn’t consider myself fluent in any of them, although (for reasons that will become obvious below) I’ve actually become pretty good at being able to understand a lot of French, Italian, and Portuguese when I read it, and a lot of Italian when I hear it.

After school ended, I really didn’t keep up with studying or using Spanish or German, and so over time they faded — German more so, because I’d studied it less, obviously, but a lot of the Spanish as well and, while I could still understand more of it than the average gabacho, the finer points had escaped me.

Flash forward to about six years ago, when a play I’d written much closer to my high school years got produced, and a big part of it was set in Mexico City, meaning that there were two police characters who spoke a lot of Spanish. When I first wrote the play, that language was a lot fresher in my head, but because we were doing a lot of development and I was doing a lot of rewriting in rehearsal, it became necessary to write new dialogue for them. Fortunately, I had two native speakers in the cast who helped, but I realized that it was probably time for a refresher course, so I dove back in.

Six years later… I am surprised at how fluent I have become. I’m actually able to have conversations with people without getting lost and, it probably goes without saying, that in America’s current climate, being a white guy who speaks Spanish is probably as much a political statement as it is a cultural one. Apoyo ciento por ciento nuestros hermanos y amigos de Latinoamérica. Somos una gente y una familia todas conjuntas. And if you can understand that without running it through Google translate, good for you. (Oh, by the way… do not trust Google translate.)

So… about six years after I started to relearn Spanish as an adult, I’m at the point where I’m tackling an entire book in the language, and I’ve been reading the Spanish version of “Ready Player One.” Oh… one other thing. A few years ago, I tried to read «Rebelión en la granja», the Spanish translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” and I couldn’t even get through the introduction. Now, I’ve been breezing through the Spanish version of “Ready Player One,” and I’m really enjoying it. It’s funny and entertaining and all the jokes are coming through. I’ve also gotten to the point where I’m not stopping to look up words and I’m not translating into English in my head, and I am picking up new vocabulary by the bucket-load.

This isn’t a humble brag or anything. Rather, it’s encouragement. Americans whose first language is English are notoriously terrible when it comes to other languages, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of resources online for learning another language, as well as groups of learners and speakers helping each other all over the place. And it is never too late to learn or to relearn. I had forgotten enough Spanish that I’d really dropped to near Peggy Hill levels of literacy. Now, I read the news in Spanish every day, I’m plowing through a YA novel in Spanish, I watch TV shows and movies and YouTube videos in Spanish, and I’m doing just great with it.

Can I pass myself off as a native and get away with it? Oh, hell no. I know that I make stupid mistakes all the time, like forgetting to plop the pronouns in the right place or messing up the gender of nouns or using present tense when it should have been preterit or imperfect, and being clueless on subjunctive and por vs. para. But… in making the effort, I find that native speakers are just as forgiving to me as I am to someone who is clearly not a native English speaker but gets the idea across. “Ooh, I can’t understand this person because they said ‘I has’ instead of ‘I have’ said no one with any empathy ever.”

And that’s really what it’s all about. The story of the Tower of Babel is a metaphor, but it is a very powerful one. It probably wasn’t a god that created all of those languages, but rather human nature, because we love to word play and make stuff up and create tribes based on common knowledge and in-jokes. But the end result is the same: We have turned different languages into a divisive thing when they should not be.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that so few Americans whose first language is English ever learn any other language. The figure is around 20%. And I know from experience — because I like to use other languages in my writing — that a lot of American Anglophone’s heads explode on sight of anything that isn’t English. And that’s just ridiculous.

Fun fact: Some of the founding fathers wanted to make America’s official language Hebrew instead of English. And when it comes to how languages work, Hebrew, like all the other Semitic languages, is about as different from English as you can get. They’re the Wheel of Fortune of Languages — “I’d like to buy a vowel.” (If you get that joke, I love you.)

If you speak more than just English, chime in in the comments and let us know which languages you speak and whether you’re American or not. If you are American but only speak English, then here’s my challenge to you. Think of a language you would like to learn, then go and learn it, and also tell me in the comments which language it is and why. And remember, like I said above: It is never too late to learn, and learning a new language is nowhere near as hard as you think it is.

After all — you learned your first language when you were a baby, right? And you probably spent at least the first four or five years with no official training other than people speaking it at you. See? That’s how easy it is to learn.


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.


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:

     Villain, what hast thou done?

     That which thou canst not undo.

     Thou hast undone our mother.

     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.


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?

Going back up the family tree

I became fascinated with genealogy years ago, and used to spend many a Wednesday evening in the Family History Center next to the Mormon Temple near Century City in Los Angeles. Say what you want about them as a religion, but their work in preserving family history has been invaluable and amazing, even if it did originally start out for the most racist of reasons wrapped in a cloak of theological justification. Fortunately, the nasty justifications have long since been removed, and if it takes believing that all family members throughout time are forever bound together in order for the Mormons to keep on doing what they do in this area, then so be it.

It had been a while since I’d actively done any research, largely because I no longer had time for it, but back in the day, I did manage to follow one branch, the ancestors of my father’s father’s mother’s mother, also known as my great-great grandmother, to find that at some point this line had been traced back to the magic date of 1500.

Why is that date magic? Well, if you do genealogy, you know. If you manage to trace all of your own family lines back that far, you can turn your research over to the LDS, and they will do the rest for you. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t easy to get all of your branches back to 1500, and certain ancestries naturally create blocks to progress. For example, if you’re descended from Holocaust survivors, you’re probably SOL for any time during or prior to WW II. Likewise if you’re descended from slaves, or your ancestors immigrated from Ireland, you’re not going to find many records after a few generations.

This is, of course, because paper records can easily be lost. For example, almost all of the records from the U.S. Census of 1890 were destroyed by a fire in 1921. During the period from June 1, 1880 to June 2, 1890 — the span between the two censuses — around 5.2 million people legally immigrated into the country. At the same time, the population grew from just over fifty million to just under sixty-three million. Or, in other words, the major and official historical record of just over eleven million people newly arrived in the country, through birth or immigration, were destroyed forever, with no backup.

Fortunately, over the last decade or so, science has developed a way of researching genealogy that cannot be destroyed because every single one of us carries it within us, and that’s called DNA, which can now be tested to match family members. On the upside, it can reveal a lot about your ancestry. Oh, sure, it can’t reveal names and dates and all that on its own, but it can tell you which general populations you’re descended from. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. At its most benign, you might find out that the ancestry you always thought you had is wrong. At its worst, you may learn about family infidelities and other dark secrets.

I haven’t had my DNA tested yet, but my half-brother did, and his girlfriend recently contacted me to reveal that at least one family secret fell out of it, although it doesn’t involve either my brother or me. Instead, it looks like a cousin of ours fathered an illegitimate child in the 1960s and, oddly enough, that woman lives in the same town as my brother’s girlfriend.

Of course, the test also came with a minor existential shock for me, since she gave me the logon and password to look at the data. It turns out that my half-brother’s ancestry is 68% British Isles and 15% each from Scandinavia and Iberia. Now, since we have different mothers, the latter two may have come from there, but the surprising part was that there is nary a sign of French or German, although our common great-grandfather, an Alsatian, is documented to have emigrated from the part of Germany that regularly gets bounced back and forth with France, and the family name is totally German. I even have records from a professional genealogist and historian who happened to find the small village my great-grandfather came from, and my brother’s girlfriend tracked down the passenger list that documented his arrival in America from Germany on a boat that sailed from France.

But that wasn’t the troublesome part of the conversation. What was troubling was finding out that one of my cousins, her husband, and two of their kids had all died, most of them young, and I had no idea that they were all gone. This led me to search online for obituaries only to wind up at familysearch.org, which is the Mormon-run online genealogy website, and decide to create an account. Once I did, I searched to connect my name to my father’s, and… boom.

See, the last time I’d done any family research, which was at least a decade ago, I’d only managed to creep up one line into ancient history, as in found an ancestor that the Mormons had decided to research. This was the line that told me I was descended from Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine via an illegitimate child of King John of England. This time, things were different, possibly due to DNA testing, possibly due to better connection of data. Whatever it was, though, wow.

Suddenly, I started out on my father’s father’s father’s side of things and kept clicking up and… damn. After a journey through England and back to Scottish royalty and beyond, I wound up hitting a long chain of Vikings that eventually exploded into probably legendary bullshit, as in a supposed ancestor who is actually mentioned in the opening chapter of Beowulf. That would make my high school English teacher happy, but it’s probably not true.

The one flaw of Mormon genealogy: Their goal is to trace everyone’s ancestry back to Adam, and so shit gets really dubious at some point.

But… if you’re willing to write off everything claimed for you before maybe Charlemagne’s grandmother, then you will find interesting stuff, and the stuff I found after clicking up a few lines was, well… definitely interesting, and maybe reinforced the idea that, despite a German great-great-granddad, my half-bro and I are apparently British as bollocks for one simple reason: Everybody and his uncle invaded Britain over the centuries, including the Romans, the Vikings, the Danish, the Gauls, the Celts, and so on.

And, true enough… up one line, I wind up descended from nothing but Vikings. Up another, from but Vandals and Goths. Several lines tell me I’m descended from a King of Denmark. Along another path, it’s the Franks, house of Charlemagne, except that the Mormons tell me I’m descended from there long before Karl Magnus himself. Several other lines, including that King John one, I’m more Welsh than the Doctor Who production company. And there are all the royal houses: Swabia, Burgundy, Thuringia, etc., as well as several Holy Roman Emperors, and kings of France, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the English, that are dancing a pavane in every cell in my body.

So, what does it all mean? On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to flip back through history and look up people from past centuries — bonus points if they made enough of a dent in time to at least have some records to look up, and big ups if they appear in Wikipedia. On the other hand, you only have to go back six generations — to your great, great, great grandparents, to find a point where each of the 32 of them contributed less than one whole chromosome to your genetic make-up. About 40 generations back, each ancestor could not have contributed more than a single atom from that DNA to you, and before that, it gets meaningless. (I’ll leave you to do the math, but it’s about 8.5 billion atoms per chromosome, times 46.)

Yet… life and time marches on. A lot of our history is oral or traditional or recorded on paper. A lot of it is false, although science is marching us toward a sort of truth. Maybe I’m not as German as I thought, but I won’t know until I test my own DNA, and may very likely run into the ancestral roadblock on my mother’s side common to people of Irish descent — ironically because people of English descent were such right bastards a few hundred years ago. That’s one set of ancestors trying to wipe out another.

But if you go back far enough, what you learn about humans is what you learn about air and water. By this point in time, every molecule of air has been through countless lungs and every molecule of water has been through countless plants, animals, and people. All of us now living have literally breathed the same air and drunk and excreted the same water. We have shared precious resources that keep us alive. Likewise, our human DNA has been through each of us, has existed long before any of us, and ultimately came from the same primordial ooze of long ago, and is also essential to our continued existence as a species.

Or, in other words, while it’s fun to do genealogy to try to pin specifics on our ancestors, there’s really only one truth. We are all related to each other. We should all treat each other like family. And this circles back to the Mormons. While they might try to justify their interest in family history based on some sort of theological belief, they’re still on the right track. Yes — all family members are sealed to each other throughout history. The thing is, all humans are family.

That’d be all humans, no exceptions. And that, perhaps, is the most amazing thing about studying genealogy. All roads lead to the idea that borders, nationalities, differences in belief, and separations by geography are complete and total bullshit. There’s another religion that put it succinctly and nicely. They were founded about twenty years after Mormonism, and they’re known as the Bahá’í. Their motto is “One planet, one people, please.

I think that’s a motto we can all get behind right now. It’s one we need to. Otherwise, we’re not going to leave any people on this planet to carry on our DNA.

Words both common and not

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing changes until we change it

I missed mention the anniversary of California’s admission to the U.S. last week, so here’s a flashback piece with a bit of California history for you.

You’ve probably never heard of Milton Slocum Latham unless you’re a serious California history nerd. I’d never heard of him until today, but I discovered him because I looked up a list of California governors. I did this because the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, announced that she was giving up her current party affiliation in order to become independent. I was curious as to which governor had put her on the court and who made her Chief Justice.

Note that I don’t really want to discuss partisan politics here. You can look up the particulars yourself. Suffice it to say that Cantil-Sakauye was appointed by a governor of her own party, then made chief justice by a governor from the other party. But what really caught my eye was going down that list of California governors and realizing that there have been a lot of tumultuous changes.

For one thing, a lot of governors served very short terms, and either resigned or were not re-elected or even nominated. This seemed particularly common in the 19th century, which makes sense considering that California came into the union in 1850 as a free state (i.e., slavery was illegal), but seemed to have a lot of Democratic governors around the time of the Civil War. And, if you’re not ignorant of history, you know that, at that time, the Democratic Party was mostly on the pro-slavery side while the Republicans were anti-slavery. This was before the great reversal of sides begun under FDR and completed while LBJ was president.

The first Republican governor of California was Leland Stanford — you might recognize his name from that little university in the northern part of the state. Elected in 1861, he only served one term at a time when the governor’s term was only two years. The law changed to double that term as soon as he left office, of course, although he did go on to serve as a U.S. Senator for California for eight years, until his death in 1893.

Stanford isn’t the only governor to have namesake places in the state. The city of Downey was named for the seventh governor, John Gately Downey, who, until Arnold Schwarzenegger, was the only governor of the state not born in the U.S. (he was Irish.) On the other hand, while it’s been claimed that Haight Street in San Francisco was named for Henry Huntly Haight, the tenth governor, that’s probably not true. This claim was first made in 1989, but the oldest mention of the street’s namesake, from 1916, says that it was probably named for Fletcher Haight, a local lawyer and district judge who, coincidentally perhaps, died the year before the other Haight became governor. And it does make sense. Governors tend to get things bigger than streets named after them.

But let’s get back to Milton Slocum Latham, the sixth governor of California, and the person to hold the singular distinction of having served the shortest term to date in that position: five days, from January 9, 1860 to January 14, 1860. He immediately preceded the aforementioned Governor Downey, by the way.

Now, why was Latham’s term so short? Did a scandal throw him out of office? Was his election invalidated, or did he pull a William Henry Harrison and drop dead? Perhaps he changed his mind and quit? Nope. None of the above, but definite proof that some things in politics never change.

See, just after Latham’s election, one of Calfornia’s Senators, David Colbreth Broderick, went and got himself killed in a duel that was most definitely related to the contentious issue of slavery, although Broderick was also apparently quite corrupt, and had made a fortune running San Francisco the same way that Tammany Hall (a thing, not a person) had run New York. All this makes me rather ashamed to admit that ol’ Brod and I have the same birthday. Dammit.

On the other hand, he was part of an attempted offshoot of the Democratic Party at the time, the Free Soil Democrats. They were the ones opposed to slavery expanding into the west. (Note: They were not necessarily anti-slavery. They just didn’t want it moving to other states.) After a little insult battle between Broderick and David S. Terry, a former California Chief Justice no less, the two met to duel. Broderick’s pistol anti-Hamiltoned and threw away its shot by firing as he drew and putting the bullet into the ground. Terry then nailed him in the right lung.

The duel happened six days after the general election that Latham won with 60% of the voters. That election was on September 7, 1859, the duel was September 13, and Broderick died on the 16th. So at least we can say Latham did not run with the intent of taking that senate seat, right?

That didn’t stop him once he was in office and, since this was back in the days when Senators were still appointed by their states instead of elected, Latham did a little wheeling and dealing, and the rest was rather dubious history.

He was not re-elected to a second senate term and died in 1882, in New York, at the age of 54.

But now to the point of this history lesson. There’s really nothing new in politics. Only the names of the people and parties and the methods through which information is exchanged evolve. I’m sure that Broderick’s duel and Latham’s gambit were covered in the newspapers and periodicals at the time, discussed in the private clubs, and propagated by telegraph.

And regardless of the parties involved, I think we can all agree that somebody being elected to one office only to lobby for a sudden vacancy in a higher office after less than a week shows heinous disregard for the people who elected them — especially when that election came with a 60% majority.

Yet we see this sort of thing all the time, as an elected official will suddenly start campaigning for an office higher up, sometimes right after they’ve been sworn in. It seems particularly bad with governors who want to run for senator or president, and senators who want to run for president, but it happens at all levels. I’ve seen city council members start to stump to become the next mayor less than halfway through their first term, mayors campaigning for governor once they’ve moved into city hall, and so on.

Now I have no objection whatsoever to an elected official wanting to work their way up the food chain. That’s how it should be. I just think that we need to make them take some time to do it, which is why I think we need a little adjustment to the law. Well two adjustments.

First, does anyone else think that it’s insane, in this day and age, that people elected to the U.S. House of Representatives serve only two years? In effect, this really means that any Rep is basically spending all of their term campaigning for their next election. The California gubernatorial term doubled from two to four years well over a century ago. We need to update the House of Reps to at least four years as well.

And, for that matter, why does the Senate get six? I can understand the idea of staggering those elections into three classes, like they are now, but why not four year terms for everyone, staggered into two classes, half elected every two years? Although, given recent behavior, it really should be flipped: House term of six years, Senate term of two. Just a thought.

But the real proposal is this one:

  1. No person newly elected for the first time to any position in the government of the United States or any of its states, counties, cities, or other political jurisdictions, shall seek, campaign for, file for, raise funds for the purpose of, or otherwise pursue, election to a different position within the aforementioned governmental jurisdictions prior to the completion of one (1) complete term to which they have been elected.
  2. Any incumbent elected official in any of the jurisdictions mentioned in §1 shall not seek, campaign for, file for, raise funds for the purpose of, or otherwise pursue, election to any different position within the government unless the term for which they would be newly elected begins on or after the date that their current term would normally expire according to applicable law. This exception does not apply to a first-term official in any capacity.
  3. None of the above restrictions shall apply to an elected official seeking to be re-elected to the same position they already occupy; nor to previously elected officials who are not currently in office for reasons other than impeachment, censure, or conviction of felonies; nor to an elected official who is not eligible to run for the same office again due to term limits.

I think those rules are fair all the way around. If you want the job, at least do it for what you contracted for. If you want to apply for another job, make sure it starts after this one ends. If you want to keep your job by reapplying, or go back to work after leaving, or are going to get laid off — then do what you want.

If your only purpose in running for office is to leap-frog your way to the top of the pile as quickly as possible for the sake of power, then we don’t need you in office. Milton Slocum Latham learned that lesson first hand. There’s also a very local and specific example from Los Angeles, but I won’t mention any names here. The important part is that, as with Latham, the voters figured it out and soon said “No.” But we really need to enshrine that automatic no into the law.

And that’s not really a political position one way or the other, since this really is a case of “both sides do it.” It’s just common sense, and another way to try to restore some sanity to our political system.