Day 933: The Thin Red Line Of Being An Offensive Jerk

originally published July 21, 2014

As a writer whose surrounding landscape is the unfiltered cessbucket frontier of the internet, I don’t spend much time worrying about offending my audience. Conversely, as a Canadian awash in synaptic decorum and apologetic genetics (or, apologenetics as we call them here), I feel compelled from the meaty core of my innards to fight the potentially offensive word choices that might trickle untowardly from my fingertips. This is why I don’t refer to my friends as my ‘niggaz’, why I reserve the word ‘Oriental’ to describe an avenue in the game Monopoly and not a collective of people, and why I won’t likely pen a kilograph on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The issue has arisen – both here in this compositional marathon as well as in “real” life – regarding the appropriate label for that group of peoples whose presence in this part of the world predates that of us whiteys. We grew up calling them Indians – a game of Cowboys ‘n Indigenous Peoples doesn’t sound nearly as fun.

It seems as though every few years I am told that the politically appropriate appellation I’ve been using is incorrect. With only 68 remaining opportunities to explore the weird wide world in this project, I think it’s time I put this issue to rest.

We all know Chris Columbus plopped his feet down on Antilles soil believing he had found the fast-track to India. His bewildered hosts were dubbed ‘Indians’ as a logical consequence, though it didn’t take long for Chris to figure out his mistake. The misnomer stuck, however. The Caribbean islands were dubbed the West Indies, and every explorer who nudged their hull against the east coast called the locals ‘Indians’. It was easier to adopt and embrace the mistake than come up with a new word, I guess.

But maybe it wasn’t a simple case of geographic blundering. Muskogee writer Bear Heart tells the story of how, after being treated so kindly by the locals, Columbus scribed in his journal that “these are people of God”, which would have appeared as “una gente in Dios”. ‘In Dios’ became ‘Indio’ and eventually ‘Indian’. In that sense, the term is more an expression of esteem than of continental ignorance. This appealing alternative has since been debunked, however; it appears the phrase shows up nowhere in Columbus’s writing. But it’s a nice thought.

While ‘Indian’ became the accepted term among North America’s new cracker infestation, a predictable stew of derogatory terminology was subsequently ladled into the lexicon. ‘Redskin’ showed up as a contrast to the terms ‘pale face’ and ‘pale skin’ that the “Indians” were using for Europeans. As any follower of Washington D.C. pro football knows, this term is a perpetual piss-off to a lot of people.

No one refers to them as ‘savages’ anymore, though anthropologists once preferred this word to describe indigenous people all over the world, including those in North America. The pidgin trade language known as Chinook Jargon uses ‘siwash’ as either an adjective or noun. This is a minor tweak of ‘sauvage’, the French word for ‘savage’. In the Pacific Northwest, this word is still in use – in other places it could get you ejected from polite society.

‘Heathen’ is also an outdated term for our native people. As a self-proclaimed heathen, I think I should find that a trifle offensive.

During the 1850’s, a notably xenophobic gaggle of Anglo-Saxons began calling themselves Native Americans, in order to differentiate their status from that of the pesky Irish and German immigrants who were swarming through Ellis Island and taking all their jobs. They formed their own party: the Know-Nothings, perhaps the last great assertion of honesty in the naming of a political party. They also came to be known as the Native American Party, and implicitly included American Indians under their self-depiction of the true inheritors of American tradition and birthright.

Before the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the term ‘native American’ would typically refer to anyone who was born in the United States, no matter what color their skin might be. Since then it came to refer solely to indigenous people, and while it might appear to be a more politically correct label, it doesn’t really cover the galloping gamut of tribes, such as the ones whose origins lie in Canada, Mexico, South America, etc. So this one’s a no-go also.

In Canada, ‘aboriginal’ is just groovy to say in public. The word has been around for centuries, having been used by the ancient Romans when they spoke of the native peoples of central Italy. But for most of the English-speaking world, ‘aboriginal’ evokes thoughts of the aborigines in the Australian outback.

‘Indigenous Peoples’ doesn’t gather a lot of fanfare. Some believe the term is too broad, lumping indigenous North Americans with the tribal residents of everywhere else white people have planted their citizenry. Also, it wreaks of the French word “indigène”, which was used as an insult in the past.

Canadians also embraced the term ‘First Nations’ in the 1980’s, when use of the word ‘Indian’ was making white people feel a little squirmy on the inside. I’m not a fan of this one; linguistically it has no groove, and it belly-flops off the tongue with zero panache or style. Also, if First Nations people actually migrated across the Bering Strait back when it was a slab of dry land, were they really the ‘First’ nations on the planet when they settled here? What were they before they made the trip? Logistically, ‘First Nations’ doesn’t ring true to me.

You’ll nudge a lot of eyebrows skyward if you utter the term ‘Eskimo’ at a cocktail party. Why has this word taken a plunge on the stock market of good taste? Some believe it’s because in Algonkian languages it means ‘eaters of raw meat’, which doesn’t sound like much of an insult to my ears. The term ‘Inuit’ is preferred, though the Yupik people (who also brace themselves against the harshness of the tundra with igloos) are distinctly different from the Inuit. I simply call them ‘people who live where no one in their right mind should live’ and let them fight about the details.

There are other terms – First Peoples (for those who don’t see tribes as nations, I guess?), Amerinds (a portmanteau of ‘American Indian’, which no one outside Latin America uses), and Injuns (for those who don’t care who they offend). A thousand words in, and I still don’t know where I should land.

In my province, our government has a Ministry of Aboriginal Relations. We also have a ministry called Human Services, which suggests a covertly racist differentiation I’d rather not think about. America boasts the Bureau of Indian Affairs, while Canada has the Aboriginal Affairs division of the federal government (which is also officially called the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs). Jesus, maybe we still need to make up a new word.

In 1977, a delegation from the International Indian Treaty Council, a collective representing indigenous people from all over the western hemisphere, agreed to use the term ‘American Indian’. A 1995 US Census survey found 50% of indigenous Americans preferred the term ‘Indian’, 37% preferred ‘Native American’, and the rest either didn’t care or liked something else. I guess the wisest route is to simply say ‘aboriginal’ for Canadians and ‘Indian’ for Americans.

Then – just to be safe – apologize like a proud Canadian.

Day 905: Slapping Those Words In Their Smarmy Little Faces

originally published June 23, 2014

There is a scene in the Kevin Smith film Clerks 2 in which a character (a very white character) decides he wants to “take back” the term ‘porch-monkey’ so that it can shed its racist connotation and act as a slur against lazy people of all tints and hues. The joke, of course, is that he is far too pink to spearhead any reappropriation effort. That sort of collective shift in perspective has to take place within the group who had been thwacked and battered by the word to begin with.

This is why I get physically jolted by a mighty douche-chill whenever I hear two white guys refer to one another as “nigga”. That not only betrays the linguistic rules, it comes across as patronizing and – as much as the intent may not be there – at least mildly racist. Oh, and put your damn hat on straight. The brim has a functional purpose, squank-bag.

The unholy n-word is probably the most famous case of a word being reclaimed by its one-time victims and re-introduced into their lexicon – albeit only into theirs. But all across the cultural spectrum there are reappropriation missions underway, consciously or unconsciously shaping the way our language will taste and smell for the next few decades.

For a minority to capture a word that had once been used as a pejorative slur against them, to tame it, then to re-release it into the wild as a neutral or even a positive thing, that’s an act of true empowerment. A perfect example is the word ‘gay’ – once fired as a derisive snip toward homosexuals, the word was forcefully taken back with the advent of the Gay Pride parade in 1970. So much so that the word is now commonplace among gays and non-gays alike. Unlike the n-word, those outside the box are allowed to use it.

Words are the easiest things to reclaim, which is interesting because they have historically been among the most powerful tools of oppression and bigoted assholery. But, as anyone who has toiled over a vicious homework assignment (or tried to twist a thousand words of haiku from their brain) will know, words are malleable. They can be reclaimed because they can bend to our will, and while cultural norms can take a little prodding before they fold, they aren’t permanent. These words might be provocative, but in the right hands the object they provoke can be reimagined.

If you’re up on your Jesuit trivia, you probably know them as an all-dude congregation of Catholics, and members of the Society of Jesus. But not too long ago the word was nothing more than a derogatory expression for someone who invoked Jesus too soon and too often in their politics. The term ‘jesuitical’ is still (albeit rarely) used to mean someone is manipulative, suspicious, and able to justify any position using a twisted and stretched form of reasoning. It’s a slur, despite the fact that ‘Jesuit’ itself has been fully appropriated by the men in the Society of Jesus as the proper term with which they identify.

There was a time when Italian-Americans would be called ‘guidos’ as an insult. That was before Snooki and her deplorable gang of disposable celebutants on the Jersey Shore gave the word a more accepted meaning. Actually no – I don’t want to accidentally give those dead-weight soul-suckers any more credit than they deserve for the cultural reappropriation of a one-time slur. I found a Washington Post article that talks about a group of New Jersey guidos in 2003, and I’ve been told the term’s reclamation began back in the late 1970’s. So no, that show has still not contributed anything of value to the world.

Jews have sought to squash the ethnic slur ‘hebe’, and Columbia University graduate Jennifer Bleyer (backed by Steven Spielberg’s money) found a way to do so with Heeb, the magazine geared for America’s hip, young Jewish population. The magazine shut down in 2010, but its intent deserves some applause. Today the word still smacks of insult, though I wonder if there are young Jews who refer to one another with the term. Maybe the next time I see my grandmother I’ll hit her with a “Yo, hebe! ‘Sup?” and see how that lands.

Taiwanese-American multi-instrumentalist Leehom Wang created his own genre of music, infusing traditional aboriginal Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian music with R&B and hip hop. He referred to the sound as ‘chinked-out’, hoping that by doing so he could help to reappropriate the word ‘chink’ and “make it cool”. Similar attempts have been made to culturally neutralize the terms ‘Paki’, ‘Flip’ and ‘Polack’, but outside of those groups, the words are still offensive. Actually, inside those groups they still are too, for the most part. But that doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way.

I’m going to tread lightly on this one, as I am willing to bet there are at minimum ten ‘Proud Redneck’ bumper stickers within a three-block radius of my house. Here’s a word which is generally used to refer to someone who is unsophisticated, uneducated, and espousing traditional, conservative politics. Among us heathen liberals, the word ‘redneck’ is a go-to slam for someone who hates gay marriage because “the Bible don’t say Adam and Steve”, who loves themselves some guns, and who drinks crappy beer while listening only to country music. In more specific cases, people use the term to refer to Southern-American racists or prairie-province Canadian yokels.

Conservatives who fit most of those characteristics (though I’m sure some prefer good beer and classic rock) did the smartest thing they could – they owned the word and ascribed a sense of personal pride in the label. The truth is, all conservatives are not rednecks, any more than all liberals are homosexual intellectuals (though a lot of the really fun ones are). Right or wrong, ‘redneck pride’ is simply another attempt at cultural reappropriation – and a mighty successful one too.

Other terms on the list of the reappropriated include ‘brat’ to refer to children of U.S. Military folks, ‘crip’ or ‘cripple’ to refer to the handicapped (I had no idea this was a thing), ‘dyke’ or ‘butch’ as another word for a lesbian, ‘pimp’ to mean something that fancy or decorated rather than someone who manhandles prostitutes (not that pimps were ever seen as an oppressed minority), and ‘tranny’ to refer to transgender people – though that one is up for debate among the transgender community. Even ‘slut’, a label that few specifically identify with, has been reappropriated by women seeking to dismantle the twisted thinking that leads some to blame the victims of sexual assault for their behavior or attire.

Material objects can also be reappropriated, though that’s a steeper climb to conquer. A Holocaust museum might display an anti-Semitic propaganda poster, though I don’t think that you’ll see a lot of Jews walking around with swastika belt-buckles any time soon. There is an increasing number of African-Americans who own what most of us would consider to be rather racist lawn jockeys like the one pictured above, and that seems to me a more legitimate act of reappropriation.

Those are isolated decisions though – they won’t carry the cultural punch of language. The optimist in me would like to think there’ll come a day when all ethnic slurs have been reclaimed and packed into cages, more docile and harmless than ever. But the change has to come from the inside; there are some words we non-oppressed white folks can’t “take back”.

Day 899: Chanjing Our Speling So It Makes Mor Sens

originally published June 17, 2014

Ask anyone who has had to learn English as something other than their first language if it was difficult to soak in all the illogical rules and quirky exceptions in our spelling and they’ll probably look at you coldly while swearing under their breath in their native tongue. The English language is an uncompromisingly fucked cluster of clusterfucks. Our language is the bastard child of every conquering tribe and proto-nation that ever set its armed and faithful sword-wielders around the English countryside. Every silly rule and wonky spelling choice has a history, they just don’t all make a lot of sense as a whole.

There have been numerous highly-placed attempts at righting the wave-flopped ship of linguistic logic between the covers of our sacred dictionaries, but those brave soldiers of common sense have far too often ended up M.I.A., lost in the murk of traditionalism and phonetic disregard. This means we are probably stuck with all the inconsistencies and incongruities on our typo hit parade. And newcomers to the language will continue to question their decision to wade into this mess in the first place.

Just as headstrong, ambitious souls have offered up entire language replacements for English, based on logic, reason and ease of absorption among the masses, some have simply tried to fix our spelling. And just like those blazers of linguistic trails before and after them, they have mostly failed. We English-speakers are a stubborn bunch.

Once the Norman leaders were scooted back to the continent after having planted three centuries’ worth of asses at the helm of England, our linguistic foreparents had to sort through a heap of French words that had filtered into the language. When the printing press showed up, things got even messier. A guy named William Tyndale translated the New Testament in 1525, and a few years later Henry VIII decided to defy the pope’s decree that the bible should never be mass-printed. The problem was, the people who did the actual printing of the bible in English didn’t speak a word of the language.

Tyndale outsourced the job.

The printers tweaked spelling as they felt necessary, often dropping in their own Dutch orthography where it made sense to them to do so. Among other things, this gave us the unnecessary silent ‘h’ in ghost, ghastly and gherkin. It also plunked a similar ‘h’ into ghossip, ghospel and ghizzard, but someone had the good sense to remove those.

Sir Thomas Smith, secretary of state to Edward VI and Elizabeth I, offered his own tweaks to the language, as did anyone with the time and inclination to piece together some sort of solution. Some of the ideas offered involved reworking the entire language – which might have been possible given the pitiful levels of literacy back then, but it was a hard sell. In his epic 1662 work Grammar, historian James Howell offered a few concepts that were soaked into the collective consciousness, like changing warre to war, toune to town and logique to logic. But there was more sabotage than repair going on in the 16th and 17th centuries.

For one thing, Greek and Latin scholars purposely added superfluous letters to words to try to link them to their Greek and Latin counterparts, sometimes in error. Det became debt to link it to the Latin debitum, and dout became doubt because of the Latin dubitare. But when a ‘c’ was added to scissors and scythe, it was done so to link it with the Latin scindere, which has nothing to do with their origin. Same with ake becoming ache to match the Greek word akhos – again, not the origin of the word. These scholars helped to create some of our most perplexing exception words.


Noah Webster, also known as the ‘Pimpin’ Pompadour of Connecticut’, had some 19th century gripes about our language. Along with his first dictionary, published in 1806, Noah offered a few suggestions to clarify our spelling miasma. The Brits wanted nothing to do with this upstart kvetcher from the Colonies, but the Americans happily dipped into Webster’s suggestion list, which included dropping the ‘u’ from words like colour and honour and swapping the final two letters in centre and spectre. His suggestion that tongue should become tung never made the cut.

The American Philological Society picked eleven spelling reforms for immediate use in 1876, including are being changed to ar, give to giv and catalogue to catalog. They also suggested that the ‘-ed’ ending in the past tense should be shortened to a ‘t’, as in mixt and kisst. The Chicago Tribune was quick to adopt all these changes, mostly because owner/editor Joseph Medill was part of the council that picked them. Still, most of these suggestions didn’t fly.

When Andrew Carnegie and the 30-member Simplified Spelling Board came up with a list of 300 words that needed immediate tweaking, President Teddy Roosevelt greeted the news with a joyous harrumph. He ordered the US government to begin adopting the new spellings immediately, which wasn’t hard since more than half of them had already become standard among American spellers. It took about eight months for Congress to reverse that call though, nixing the same ‘t’ for past-tense swap that the American Philological Society had proposed 30 years earlier, as well as most of the other changes. Some – like mould becoming mold or anaemia becoming anemia did stick around.

The British formed their own Simplified Spelling Society, but while they had a number of well-placed cheerleaders – George Bernard Shaw left a huge chunk of his estate to the cause – they have yet to see a huge snowball of change. This might be because they haven’t endorsed any particular alternative spelling system. They did give a faint slab of praise to linguist Harry Lindgren’s SR1 proposition, which featured a number of logical simplifications: eny for any, sed for said, frend for friend, and so on. Again, it never caught on.

The Chicago Tribune wasn’t about to give up on spreading spelling reforms. And why should they? As one of the largest distributor of mass prose in the nation, they were in the ideal position to squeeze new spelling standards into the mainstream. From 1934 through 1975 they championed thru, burocrat, iland, rime, telegraf, tho and a host of other letter combinations that induce a squiggly red line in any modern word processor. They claimed the majority of their readers preferred the new spelling. Eventually they were overwhelmed by the public’s lack of commitment to their cause, and the new spellings faded away.

I’m willing to throw my support behind any idea that seeks to clean up our language of its wonky rules and voluminous exceptions. Last year, Oxford professor Simon Horobin suggested we simply allow for variety. There’s no reason tomorrow can’t also be tomorow, or that committee couldn’t be comitee too. Let’s just live and let live – spell and let spell.

Hey, if we can get lol into the dictionary, why not?

Day 892: 8 Obscure Poetry Forms For The Love Of 80s Movies

originally published June 10, 2014

I have a tendency to mistrust my own ambition. One morning I felt the urge to spend that day’s kilograph using however many haikus would be necessary to fill a thousand words (eight-two, apparently). Another day had me wrestling to produce nine Shakespearean sonnets, adhering as closely as possible to the specific rules the Bard created for himself. Once I stuck my e-quill into the murky ink of limericks. Every time I drift from prose into the rhymey, heavily-structured stuff it sucks up most of my daylight hours.

Yet here I go again, this time seeking the lesser-known twists of poetic construct, and aiming to siphon yet another perfectly good weekday into the mire of make-workery. Such is the sacrifice that I shall make for you, the reader of my manifesto of madness.

And because nothing is really drop-kicking my heart of hearts between the uprights of noble inspiration this morning, I’m going to use films from the 1980s as my muse. Suck it, romanticism.

I’ll start with a seguidilla, a Spanish form of verse with a specific syllable count (7,5,7,5,5,7,5) and rhyme scheme (x,A,x,A,B,x,B).

Consider: five lives meeting,

locked in detention;

overcoming plot points, and

child-scar retention;

it might happen there –

in Fiction, Illinois, sure;

fist-pump in the air!

I’m not winning any awards with these – best to accept that early on and continue.

For my erasure, a form of ‘found poetry’ in which the words of another piece of text are erased, leaving something that might resemble a piece of poetry, I’m borrowing from James Earl Jones’ monologue from Field Of Dreams.

They’ll come to your driveway

They’ll arrive for twenty dollars

And they’ll sit on children.

Heroes dipped in magic so thick, they’ll come.

People, Ray.

Ray, baseball.

Steamrollers erased our past, Ray.

People, Ray.


I think it makes the same point as the original, but with greater brevity. Sort of.

A clerihew is a quick, four-line biographical poem with irregular lines, an AABB rhyme scheme, and a whimsical structure. Since ‘whimsical’ is a must, I feel I should write one of these for the film Sophie’s Choice.

Sophie had a crappy day

They (spoiler!) took her kid away.

And though she fooled around with a guy named Spingo

Did it still hurt like hell? That’s a bingo!

Wow. Even with the fun Nazi reference to Inglourious Basterds, I still feel filthy after writing that.

A cadae is a poem based on math, because the people who develop new forms of poetry are unnaturally cruel. Each stanza of the poem contains 3, 1, 4, 1 and 5 lines, representing the first numbers of pi. Also, each line contains the corresponding number of syllables, because why make this easy?

To sum up: five stanzas with the line count above. Syllable count in each line should match pi’s digits: 3.1415926535897.

Since these poems are all about pi, I’ll write one about the greatest pie scene of the decade, from Stand By Me.

A large kid –

Huge –

Davie Hogan.


“Lardass” to others,

He plots an elaborate revenge:


Comeuppance through baked goods.

“Boom-baba-boom.” Dicks.

Castor oil,

raw egg for the win!

He launches a well-placed, vulgar,

purple vomit-bomb. He sits back, chills,

and lets those jerks drown themselves.

I have never been so proud of myself for something so… vaguely inappropriate.

A fib is similar to the cadae, in that it uses math so as to challenge the poet into not going insane under such weird constraints. Rather than revolve around pi, the fib involves the Fibonacci sequence, that string of numbers wherein the next in the series is the sum of the previous two numbers. This creates a poem of six lines, with a Fibonacci syllable count: 1/1/2/3/5/8. One could go further, but by line twelve you’d need to fit 144 syllables in, and who wants to put in that kind of effort?




punk – Ferris –

he’s lying; he won’t

leave my cheese out in the wind, Grace.

Is this great art? No. Will I hit my daily quota and learn something about poetic forms that I’ll probably never even think of again? I guess. Do I hate it when people ask themselves easy set-up questions and then answer them? Yes, and I should stop this immediately.

I’m a big fan of the pruntiform poem, mostly because it doesn’t rhyme, giving me one less thing to worry about. The idea with these is that you can read the first line across and down, as the first words of all subsequent lines. American poet Randy Prunty invented this format. Congratulations, Randy. You’ve gone down in history.

Axel, this mystery will lead you west to fight another;

This darkness, this murder – shrouded in sulphurous

Mystery; hold tight to the truck-chains, steal hotel robes.

Will Serge make you coffee with a lemon twist?

Lead role as Balki he’ll take soon – but this is not your concern;

You must dig beneath coffee to find drugs in the warehouse –

West coast white people wear funny jackets…

To the strip club with Rosewood and Taggart with ye!

Fight Victor Maitland; there’s no concealing he’s the bad guy.

Another use for a banana you’ll find in your travels.

It’s hard to imagine I’m giving all this poetic fortitude to the masses on the internet for free, isn’t it?

Next I’ll try a little scifaiku – the science-fiction variant on the haiku form. The only differences are that they must have something to do with sci-fi or fantasy (obviously), and while minimalism is key, they can deviate from the 5-7-5 syllable structure of the haiku if necessary. Screw that – where’s the fun in this exercise if I’m not blindly adhering to structure?

Cute, crafty Muppets

Time to hoist those swinging logs;

Can’t use a blaster?

The tetractys is yet another exercise in syllable-counting. Just as the tetrad is a sacred triangle, the related poem is set up in much the same way. The first line is one syllable, then two, then three, then four, then ten. I don’t know why ten and not five – ask the ancient Pythagoreans.


you should

have heard your

brother squeal when

I broke his fucking neck,” said John McClane.

Poetry is meant to touch the soul, and if your soul was raised on 80’s flicks like mine, I hope I inspired a tear. If not a tear, then some longing nestled within the cradle of your heart’s memory that cultivated a yearning for… oh, what’s that? I hit my thousand word quota? Should I stop writing now?

Yes. Yes I should.

Day 839: The Stars Of Our Show – The Alphabet

originally published April 18, 2014

I love playing around with the format of this little experiment and trying to cram as much (seemingly) meaningless trivia into a tiny thousand-word cubicle. To that end I’m going to offer a specific number of trivia slices to spread across your plate of knowledge today, awaiting the fork of your understanding to spear them into your hungry maw of learning so that you can digest them, extracting their knowledge-nutrients and converting the rest into cerebral poo. Also I’ll throw in that over-wrung metaphor for free. Such are the bargains here at Marty’s House o’ Stuff.

Twenty-six snippets for twenty-six letters. It’s fun getting a little meta, writing about writing – or in this case, writing about the microorganisms that band together and excrete the bulk of my daily output for your enjoyment. Every picture tells a story, and every story is made up of letters and every letter is a picture with its own story… it’s the circle of linguistic life.

For your consideration, I present the Latin alphabet in all its glory.

The letter A (under its old-school name, aleph) was the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. It was derived from the ox-head pictogram from the Bronze Age proto-Sinaitic script, which in turn came from the Egyptian hieroglyph. The horns pivoted around and by the time the Romans adopted their own written language from the Greek alphabet and a mix of other influences in the 7th century BC, the horns were pointed downward.

The glyph that may have spawned the letter B could represent the floor plan of a cottage. Clearly the Egyptians weren’t big on fancy layouts back then. The Greeks gave the B its bulbous curves when they crafted their symbol for ‘beta’.

The letter C is derived from the same letter as G. The Semites called it ‘gimel’, which is still its name in Hebrew. The hieroglyph that inspired it may have represented a staff sling – a stick with a short sling at the end of it, like a lacrosse stick with the net part falling off.

The Semitic letter that gave us D might have evolved from the symbol for ‘door’ or ‘fish’. Some languages pronounce this letter like we pronounce a ‘T’. Handy tip if you’re learning Navajo, Estonian or Icelandic.

The figure on the left represents someone praying, calling out to someone, or perhaps raising their hands in the air like they just don’t care because when you hear the call you’ve got to get it under way, word up. Anyway, much like how A tilted around, the Greeks decided that E’s forefather, epsilon, should point its fingers to the right.

F was brought into the Greek alphabet as a vowel: upsilon. Upsilon is the grand-daddy to the letters U, V, W and Y. It wasn’t until the Romans declared ‘V’ to be their upsilon that F was granted the sound we associate with it today. The Greeks and Etruscans didn’t even use the sound in their languages, which might be why the capital of Greece is not called ‘Affens’.

As I pointed out, C used to represent the ‘K’ and ‘G’ sounds before open vowels showed up. Spurius Carvilius Ruga, the first Roman to create a school with fees (and my massive student loan debt thanks him for that), introduced the G to distinguish between the voiced and voiceless sounds that C had been burdened with.

The fence hieroglyph was whittled down to the familiar letter H. This forlorn little letter was dropped by nearly all the Romance Languages. Some picked it up again, but others didn’t, which is why French-Canadians play “le ‘ockey” and not “hockey”. The name of the letter is up for debate too – I call it “aitch”, but other varieties of English (in Malaysia, Singapore and yes… Newfoundland) call it “haitch”.

It took until the 16th century for J and I to really separate and become their own separate creatures. In the Turkish alphabet, an I with a dot (called a ‘tittle’ by those of us who enjoy saying that word) has a different sound than one without. You’ve got to watch for specks on your paper I guess, otherwise you’ll sound like a schmuck.

J used to show up as the final I in a Roman numeral if more than one I was present. So xxiij would have been the proper way to write 23. The original /j/ sound (as it’s written in proper phonetics) is actually more of a ‘y’ sound, as we use it in “Hallelujah” or “Fjord”. We use the letter J the way the French do.

In the earliest Latin writings, C, K and Q all made the same sounds (either ‘K’ or ‘G’). Most romance languages dropped the K, which was deemed an unnecessary letter. There were plenty of words already swimming through those languages with the letter K though, so it never went away.

The letter L may have derived from the symbol for a cattle prod or a shepherd’s staff. The British pound sign, which is based on the capital L, stands for ‘libra’, the basic unit of weight in the Roman Empire. This is also why ten pounds is abbreviated to 10 lbs and not 10 pds. Sometimes we just stick with the old ways.

The squiggle that tells the origin story of M likely represented water. The Semitic equivalent is known as ‘mem’, which was the Phoenician word for water. Is it a coincidence that our word for water starts with a letter that looks like an upside-down M? Absolutely.

The Egyptian hieroglyph for J was meant to look like a snake because their word for snake started with that sound. The Semitic languages (Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic and Arabic) used a word which began with an N sound, so rather than create something new they just borrowed the J squiggle. It was already there; why not?

O hasn’t changed at all. How do you improve on a circle? The Phoenicians called it ‘eyn’, meaning ‘eye’, but for the most part languages around the world – even the ones that didn’t derive from the European / Middle Eastern languages – use ‘O’ to make the same sounds we use it for. Probably because of the mouth’s shape while pronouncing it.

Arab languages never bothered with the phoneme for the letter P. Way back in the dusty days of old, the /p/ phoneme evolved into the Arabic /f/. Even words they have since borrowed into the language have been given a /b/ sound. So I guess they call it… Balestine?

The letter Q, which took a roundabout route to our language via the hieroglyph for a cord of wool and the Greek letter Qoppa, is the only letter not found in any U.S. state name. In the Zulu language, it is pronounced as a postalveolar click, which is heaps of fun.

The Semitic letter R may have derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘head’ – if that drawing above is accurate, then from a head with a distinct soul patch. R is the biggest pain in the ass when you’re learning linguistics because there are more than a half-dozen ways to pronounce it: as a fricative, a trill, a flap, and so on.

Up until about the fourteenth century, the small form of S looked like a lower-case ‘f’ without the foot at the bottom or the line through the middle. Once the printing press became a thing, the lower-case form of S was required to avoid confusion with ‘f’. Think about it – the word ‘sinfulness’ would looke like: ſinfulneſſ.

T hasn’t changed much. The Phoenician letter ‘taw’ looked more like a plus sign, but apart from a shift of the horizontal bar, a T has always been a T. It’s also our most popular consonant – something to keep in mind if you’re ever on Wheel of Fortune.

Using a V in place of a U is a great way to make your new condo complex appear old-timey and classical. The two letters used to be interchangeable – in the Middle Ages there was a period where V would be used at the beginning of the word and U if it showed up in the middle. It took until the mid-16th century before V was established as the consonant and U as the vowel.

V is the sixth-least common letter in English, and it doesn’t show up at all in Polish – they use W instead. In Spanish, a V is pronounced like a B, which I count as more evidence that when I eventually travel the world I’m going to sound like an idiot almost everywhere I go.

W used to look like a double-U, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone. In Danish, Norwegian, French and Swedish they actually call the letter double-V. In Finnish, W is not a separate letter and is pronounced /v/. In Russia, the letter V is pronounced like a W, so long as we base our research solely on the utterances of Pavel Chekov from Star Trek.

The letter X is an enigma. It serves very little purpose, as the sounds it makes can be easily formed by using another letter or pair of letters (zylophone, eks-laks, etc). But we love it. It marks the spot on our treasure maps, shows us where we screwed up on our history quiz and stands in as the mystery element in algebraic equations.

When printing first became a thing in Great Britain, the letter Y was used in place of the letter thorn, pictured above. Thorn was the letter that created the ‘th’ sound, which is why we see Y in place of ‘th’ quite often in Old English, as in “Ye Olde Shoppe”. Also, the British fucking love their silent e’s.

The letter Z was tacked onto the end of the Latin alphabet in the 1st century BC as a way to pronounce Greek words with the letter zeta. It is the rarest letter in our language, though you’ll find it more in American writing (with words that end in ‘ize’ instead of ‘ise’) than anywhere else. Also, you Americans are the only ones calling it ‘zee’. The rest of us like our ‘zed’.

There you are – 26 new factoids that will change absolutely nothing about your life. But those little creatures that have evolved over thousands of years from cave scratches to the names of potential sex partners, hastily scrawled in Sharpie in a bathroom stall – those things mean everything.

Day 821: Schlepping A Thousand Kosher Words To The Page

originally published March 31, 2014

I’m not one to toot my own genetic horn, but I have yet to discover a language more palette-ticklingly entertaining than Yiddish. I may have been raised in a Jewish home whose only strict adherence to the faith involved my father slightly furrowing his brow when I’d order a bacon cheeseburger at a restaurant, but I still feel connected somehow to those roots, at least to the comedy synthesized within them. Sure, it took me years before I understood what Laverne & Shirley meant by “Schlemiel, Schlimazel” (and I still have no idea what “Hasenpfeffer Incorporated” means), but dammit I learned.

Yiddishisms have spiraled outward from the Lower East Side to become a part of our national (and I’m in Canada, so it’s safe to say international) lexicon. Those words ring out with the clarity of a brilliant punchline: “putz” splats against the wall in high definition, “schmuck” delivers a crisp, voiceless velar uppercut, and “plotz” speckles our aural ceiling  with the sonic lucidity of what it means to convey.

I love these words, both as a Jew and as a writer. Carved from the euphonic stones of an ancient dialect, they pepper our language with capricious consonants and cough-vented vowels. A few days ago I wrote about ‘leet’ – the pseudo-language of the old-timey computer era, concocted to massage a false sense of elitism and smug superiority. But Yiddish – in particular the words that have become commonplace in English – is all about fun, spice, and delivering a laugh with the deftness of Jackie Mason.

Let’s start with the schmuck. You might use this to describe a guy who leaves his shopping cart seemingly strategically so that it blocks off two spaces in the parking lot. You might as well call him a dick, because that’s what the original Yiddish definition of a schmuck is. In German, the word translates to ‘jewelry’, whereas they’d use the word ‘shmok’ (which is actually closer to the original Yiddish pronunciation) if they want to employ it the way that we do. Actually – and I’m not making this up – this is cited as one way the term ‘family jewels’ came to represent the male dong.

Lenny Bruce was apparently arrested in 1962 for using the word ‘schmuck’ on stage. In Jewish homes today it’s nothing to utter the syllable, but back then it was a genuinely taboo word. Bruce claims it was a Yiddish undercover agent in the audience that nabbed him while checking to see if Lenny was using Yiddish terms to cover up profanity. Ten years later Richard Pryor had a standup career… times changed quickly.

A number of quality Yiddishisms refer to penis, including putz, schlong, shvantz, shmeckle (which refers to a boy-size wang), and schmo. That doesn’t mean that the term ‘Joe Schmo’ should be literally thought of as ‘Joe Penis’, but you’re welcome to make that leap if it elbows a giggle loose from your ribs. Cartoonist Al Capp’s lovable befooted blob known as the Shmoo may have been derived from this word also, though Capp himself hints that it may have derived from the Yiddish term ‘shmue’, meaning uterus.

‘Shtick’, which clangs off the walls of one’s mouth with a delightfully quirky reverberation, is one Yiddish word that refers directly to comedy itself. It can refer to the worn-out repetition of a politician’s position or the oft-used comedic bits that consistently work for a performer, like Harpo Marx pulling endless goodies from his trenchcoat pockets or Chris Farley falling on his ass. Orthodox Jews often incorporate the ‘wedding shtick’ into the post-ceremony party; this is when guests dance around the bride whilst holding silly signs, goofy banners, jumping ropes made from tied-together napkins, and generally acting like asses for laughs. Those Orthodox Jews are a riot.

Some of the best Yiddish words refer to food, and some of the greatest food ever to splash into the murky waters of a human stomach are Yiddish in origin. Lox – that brined salmon that can transform an ordinary bagel into something exquisite – is actually an import from the German word for salmon: ‘lachs’. ‘Pastrami’ scooted over to North America courtesy of the influx of Romanian Jews in the late 19th century. Kugel, an egg-noodle-based pudding or casserole, is another word that found us via our German-Jewish imports.

Perhaps more important than foodstuffs and body parts, Yiddish terms can effectively describe the buffoonery around us. A nudnik will noodge and potchka until you want to club him in the kishka. A fershtinkiner may come off as an alter cocker, when in fact he’s just a gonif after your gelt. Just stay away from the word faygala – it’s not politically correct and we try not to use it anymore.

If you’re feeling a little fertummelt, let me help you out. You may believe you have a lot of chutzpah just because you can tell a dreck from a mensch, but don’t spend all day kvelling about it or you’ll come off as a little meshugge. You can nosh on some schmaltz – that’s chicken fat to you goyim – but it’s more fun if you’re also listening to some schmaltz on the radio. I recommend some Air Supply.

A shmendrick is a little guy, too feeble to shmeer some butter on a matzo. But like any shlub he can schmooze his way to the top. It helps to be rich, to invent some schlock the folks will buy, maybe a fancy tchotchke the people will like. If he fails, don’t get all ver clempt on his behalf – maybe he’ll marry a rich shiksa with a cute little shnoz and have a big brood of little pishers, or maybe deep down he’s a little meekait and he deserves it. Don’t kvetch about him behind his back – the world doesn’t need another yenta.

The words ‘schlemiel’ and ‘schlimazel’ are related beyond the infinite bonds of a 70’s/80’s sitcom’s opening theme song. A schlemiel is an inept or clumsy person – another way of calling someone a klutz (which is also Yiddish in origin). A schlimazel is someone with chronic bad luck. So if a schlemiel is going to fall out a window, you should probably spare some pity for the poor schlimazel he lands on.

Oy vey is perhaps one of the most poorly-used expressions in the Yidglish cannon. Too often I hear people – yes, gentiles, but I’m not picking on you – utter it as an alternative for “oh boy.” An element of surprise is certainly optional when an oy vey is called for, but it translates from the German “oh weh” or “au weh”, more as an exasperated cry of “oh woe is me” than anything else. Actually, oy vey is simply “oh woe” – if you want the full “oh woe is me” you’d need to employ the full-length “oy vey ist mir”.

It’s the Jewish sensibility, blended swimmingly into our language through expressions of self-deprecation, humor and food. And any ol’ schnook is free to use these words, so long as they don’t screw them up and fall flat on their tukhus.

Day 819: How To Talk Like A Geek, Circa 1993

originally published March 29, 2014

As romantically as it may roll from the tongue, the notion of September, 1993 being referred to as “the Eternal September” is far from the fodder for another Nicholas Sparks melodramatic novel (which he has no doubt penned in the time it has taken me to write this opening sentence). The Eternal September is a gripe, not a blessing. It’s a common kvetch among those in the cyber-know, or the Information Age hipsters. You know, those folks who swooned to their telephonic modem’s screech before it was cool to do so.

Back in the days when the online population consisted of hackers, crackers and e-thwackers, September was traditionally the month they’d have to endure a fresh crop of newbies – the fall-semester college crowd who had been granted Usenet access through their schools. These kids would swarm all over the discussion forums, staining each one with the stench of their inexperience.

Perhaps it has something to do with the primordial netizens’ having been burdened with the label of the outcast in their offline lives, I don’t know. Maybe the hackers of yore didn’t want anyone new in their clubhouse. It’s also entirely possible the college Usenet crowd was obnoxious and foul, dropping into the alt.2600 forum and asking if someone can teach them to hack into Visa’s server and clear off their credit card debt.

It was standard September procedure to put up with these newbies until they either learned the protocols or dropped out from lack of interest. Then these bastards changed it all:

In September of 1993, AOL started offering Usenet access to its users as part of their early efforts to dominate the entire webosphere. The so-called ‘Eternal September’ meant that not only did the Usenet insiders from the green-screen era have to contend with a new batch of fall freshmen, they’d be fending off every Johnny and Janie Schmuckstein who plugged in a free AOL trial CD just to see what all the fuss was about.

When Usenet went mainstream – and that’s when I jumped on board, mostly to cruise through the Beatles discussion forum to eavesdrop on fans who spent more time calling each other Nazi pedophiles than talking about music – the pioneers needed some way to preserve the nobility of their antiquity. Some way to pick one another from a crowd of text characters, to identify their brothers and sisters who had been online back when Night Court was still on TV.

And just like that, a lingo was born. A lingo called 1337.

If you’ve been online for long enough you have probably seen this garble of letters and numbers somewhere. This is the primordial speak that eventually gave birth to such Oxford Dictionary-friendly terms as ‘LOL’, ‘OMG’ and ‘WTF’. It’s likely that this odd tweak of online communication came not from an attempt at elitism, but more as a means of subverting filters in chat rooms. This was a time when bulletin board or IRC system operators would plant text filters to weed out forbidden topics (like hacking into Visa’s server to clear off one’s credit card debt, for example).

The jargon was called ‘leet’, which is a truncated form of ‘elite-speak’. Elite status on a bulletin board service meant special access to certain folders (probably porn), games (probably erotic) and chat rooms (probably about Night Court). The jargon involves plunking in numbers in place of letters, so ‘LEET’ becomes ‘1337’. You’ve really got to bend your visual imagination around this language, but once it caught on it became that secret badge of online experience that the cyber-veterans had been looking for.

Along with the myriad of letter/number alternatives, leet quickly developed words of its own. ‘Pr0n’ was an early entry, a shorthand for ‘pornography’ that not only swaps a zero for the letter ‘o’ but also invokes an intentional typo. Plus, saying it out loud kind of makes me hungry for cocktail sauce. ‘N00b’ is short for ‘newbie’, ‘warez’ stands for ‘software’ and ‘w00t’ is a triumphant exclamation of joy. These are all pretty self-explanatory, and wouldn’t have been too hard to decipher for a newcomer.

The term ‘pwned’ – as in, “The Seahawks defense totally pwned Denver’s offense in the Super Bowl because…” well, fuck it, I had money on that game – is a morsel of later-era leet, having risen to the height of its popularity about ten years ago. Its pronunciation is unclear – some say ‘powned’ while other acknowledge the leet term’s roots as an intentional typo of ‘owned’ and keep the ‘p’ silent.

Perhaps the most common typo, at least for the split-second before your word processor auto-corrects it, ‘teh’ is another piece of leetspeak that could be found scattered around 90’s-era Usenet forums like obnoxious zits. ‘Teh’ has the power to turn any word into an intensified noun, which can then act as a superlative. So to say, “This is teh suck” would be another way of stating “This is the suckiest.” It may sound juvenile and twisted, but this new medium had to breed some form of new lexicon. It was what it was.

For someone first stepping into the waters of online communication in the 90’s, the abbreviations could be rather daunting. No doubt someone was keeping a detailed translation guide on some webpage somewhere, but Googling was not second nature to us – in fact Google didn’t even exist back then. I had to ask someone in order to find out that ‘TTYL’ meant ‘Talk To You Later’ ‘G2G’ meant ‘Got To Go’ and ‘OMGRWIBIGWH!!!!’ meant ‘Oh My God, Robin Williams Is Brilliant In Good Will Hunting!!!!’. It was a steep curve.

What began as a language to separate the ‘elite’ from the fresh-faced yokels online was eventually ported to text-speak – the linguistic shortcuts which are splattered across teenage text messages and which no doubt stoke the frustrated ire of high school English teachers everywhere. The jargon of the old-timers has bubbled under and become the shorthand of the masses. If you own a cellphone and you’ve texted another human – and no, this doesn’t include everyone… hi mom! – you have probably slipped at the very least an LOL into your outgoing communication. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, though I’d advise using it honestly and only employing the term when you actually laugh out loud.

There is no longer anything elite about leet. I’m sure the cyber-geriatrics who still remember the days of plopping their telephone receiver upon their modem whilst rocking out to A Flock of Seagulls have found a new way to differentiate themselves from the unwashed masses, but the masses have taken control. Our online status can no longer be judged by the lingo we choose because we’re all seasoned veterans now.

We may still be in the depths of Eternal September, but when it comes down to it, who cares about August anymore?

Day 755: I Before E, The Extended 12″ Remix Version

originally published January 24, 2014

Those who know me know that I love mnemonics. I recite them often in an instructional way, which is why those who know me try not to spend a lot of time around me. Mnemonics – in particular those little rhymes that assist in remembering grammar and spelling – should be on the tip of everyone’s tongue when they’re writing. I just finished responding to some dopey twit on who had made the astute observation that the Pro Bowl captains “should of been aloud” to choose the position order of their drafts. First off, he’s wrong – that was exactly how they ran the draft. Secondly, his clumsy manhandling of the English language suggests that he’s either too stupid to throw a brick at or else a Patriots fan. 

Speaking of which, it’s time for my annual tradition of posting a Sad Tom Brady pic: 

Because there are only a handful of rhyming mnemonics pertaining to the English language, I might be able to improve the linguistic landscape of our little worldly-wide web by adding a few more. To be clear, I’m not bothered when I see texting lingo in a discussion forum – if you want to type ‘u’ instead of ‘you’ or ‘2’ instead of ‘to’, I say go for it. Prince was doing it decades ago. 

But if you’re going to mount an argument and drop a Yobogoya ‘their’ splatter when you meant to say ‘they’re’, then I may still listen to your point, but I’ll read it in my head in a vile, nasally, downright Gottfriedian voice. So there. 

Let’s start with the one we all know: 

I after E, 

Except after C, 

Or when sounded as ‘A’, 

As in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’. 

That’s cute. It’s easy to remember, gets right to the point, and should guide an English-language newbie through his or her quest to master the unheralded art of correct spelling. But it’s not comprehensive. I’m proposing a few more verses, just to make sure we’re covering as many of the rule’s exceptions as possible: 

Though words with ‘-CY’ 

Be they urban or rural, 

Will end ‘CIE’, 

Just like ‘species’, in plural. 

But what about ‘science’? 

That word seems deficient; 

And hey, there’s another! 

It’s so inefficient! 

Oh jeez, it’s the Latin 

When dropped as a prefix, 

‘Society’, ‘Prescient’, 

I need a Kleenex. 

So ‘E’ before ‘I’ 

In ‘Foreign’ and ‘Vein’, 

And ‘Seize’, ‘Their’ and ‘Weird’; 

This rule is a pain. 

In fact, in this language 

It’s rather absurd; 

This dumb rule is followed 

By far too few words. 

Okay, so I have effectively rendered the bouncy mnemonic completely useless. But I before E is more of a suggestion than a rule to begin with – in the Oxford English Dictionary, 5,414 words have ‘E’ next to ‘I’ and follow the rules of the initial verses, while 2,807 break them. That’s a lot of exceptions. 

Here are a few other handy tricks to help you remember the correct way to piece your thoughts together: 

Remember in all of your legal expungement 

To take out the ‘E’ where it should be in ‘judgment’. 

For ‘T-I-O-N’ you say ‘SH’ every time 

Except for ‘Equation’ (or if you’re a mime). 

Remember that ‘they’re’ ain’t a place or possessive; 

It’s short for ‘they are’, ass-face! Whoops – too aggressive. 

And ‘their’ with an ‘I’ means it’s something they own, 

‘Their Buick’, ‘Their teabag’, ‘Their last Toblerone.’ 

While ‘there’ (E-R-E) is for all other uses; 

I hope this solves all homophonic abuses. 

I’m thinking I should be up for some kind of award if this works. If I can get just one person to adjust their online mangling of the language, then… well, that won’t be much. I’m dribbling an eyedropper of medicine into a sea of typos and faulty word usage. I’m no hero, just some schmuck throwing a punch at a tornado. 

And so I continue: 

If something’s excessive 

Or far too intense; 

Avoid using ‘T-O’ 

Or look rather dense. 

To get to a place, 

To a time, to a thought, 

Don’t use ‘T-O-O’ 

For the right one it’s not. 

And if you are spelling 

What’s five minus three, 


Is the right one for thee. 

There’s no brighter sign 

Of a write-stifled boor 

Than a scribe who confuses 

His ‘your’ with his ‘you’re’. 

If meaning ‘you are’ 

Then ‘apostrophe-E’; 

This should be corrected 

As soon as grade three. 

If something is yours 

Then forgo all the drama; 

Just ‘Y-O-U-R’, 

Drop the hovering comma. 

This is fun. I’m going to wake up each morning and recite these before my first keyboard finger-thump. I may simply paste a link to this article every time I see a flagrant disregard for linguistic decorum on Facebook. That’ll help keep my friend-count in the low numbers. 

The ‘C’ and the ‘G’ 

Both deserve your protection, 

For in the wrong crowd 

They might lose their erection; 

A ‘guh’ becomes ‘juh’ 

When this rule is aloft; 

‘Round ‘E’, ‘I’ or ‘Y’ 

Both these letters are soft. 

When playing a golf game 

Your sister may lose; 

Call her ‘loose’ with a typo 

And you’ll get a bruise. 

When something’s finite 

It’s not often misspelled; 

But then when it’s definite, 

Sense goes to hell. 

There’s no ‘A’ appearing 

Inside of that word; 

“It’s not ‘DEF-IN-ATE’” 

Says the old grammar nerd. 

And what of the screw-ups 

When ‘Its’ should be ‘It’s’? 

Can’t spot the contraction, 

You young careless shits? 

Okay, just a few more. I’m thankfully running out of English language quirks that jab me in the eyes whenever I see them online. Also, I’m sounding a little bit twattish in some of these, particularly in that last one. Sorry about that. 

Those special effects 

(Like a CGI clown) 

Will start with an ‘E’ 

When the word is a noun. 

If something affects you 

It starts with an ‘A’; 

That’s just how it is, 

There ain’t no other way. 

Whether the weather 

Is wet or abhorrent, 

The proper selection 

Your writing will warrant. 

You’d best squish together 

From two words ‘CANNOT’, 

While splitting apart 

The true word-pair ‘A LOT’. 

And when you’re comparing 

Your A/C and fan, 

You’ll know which one’s better 

And write it with ‘than.’ 

If something should happen 

Then something subsequent, 

Then ‘THEN’ you will use 

(This will happen more frequent). 

And before I forget 

(Though your skull I should halve), 

It’s never “should of”, 

You dumb Pats fan – ‘SHOULD HAVE!!!’ 

Hopefully this little primer in correct language will lead to a revolution in eloquent Youtube comments and more aesthetically pleasing comparisons to Hitler in discussion room arguments. I doubt it, but at least I tried. 

And I made fun of Patriots fans a little. Maybe I’m a grammar snob but at least I’m not one of them. 

Day 746: Punctuation – Not Just For Cartoon Speech-Bubble Swears

originally published January 15, 2014

Today I’m going to opt for a markedly insular approach and write about some of the tools I keep scattered about my proverbial writing desk. I’m not talking about my retread and tired metaphors, nor the antiquated pop culture references that pepper my daily prose (though those are just dyn-o-mite!). On a much simpler scale, these are the trinkets that keep my writing from running on like a babbling drunkard or looking like a poorly-phrased ee cummings poem.


“Shit,” you are no doubt thinking. “He’s going to write about punctuation? What happened to writing about stolen brains or lousy movies?” I know, I get that. But had I known just how interesting the topic of punctuation might be, I might not have put off writing about it for 746 days. There’s a world of intrigue in those little blips and squiggles. Well maybe not intrigue in the spy-thriller-mystery-explosions sense of the word. But certainly enough to merit three and a half minutes of your attention.

As you can see, the symbol for the ampersand has evolved from a lower-case ‘h’ that has been slapped on the back to a half-finished bathroom-stall piece of dink graffiti to a prototype wheelchair access placard, and eventually into the little swoosh we know and love today. Its origins are a stylistic scrunching of the Latin ‘ET’, meaning (unsurprisingly) ‘and’. Though we have now relegated the mighty ampersand to a shorthand and/or stylish alternative (“Hall & Oates” is so much snazzier than “Hall and Oates”), the little guy used to have a place in our alphabet, right at the end.

Only about 150 years ago, while reciting the ABCs children would end with “and per se and”. “Per se” means “by itself”, so the addition of the last letter in the list had to be prefaced by pointing out that ‘&’ stands on its own curved feet, and is not technically a letter on its own. “And per se and” was eventually shmushed into the symbol’s name, ampersand.

Here’s a handy little ampersand tip for you. According to Writer’s Guild of America rules, if you see two names separated by a ‘&’ in a screenplay credit, the writers worked in collaboration. If they are separated by ‘and’ then one writer tweaked another’s script, and the two may have never even met.

Growing up, I had no idea what that funky little encircled ‘a’ was doing above the ‘2’ on my typewriter. There was no Twitter, no email, and no functional use for the thing. The symbol’s original use was as an abbreviation of ‘arroba’, a unit of weight in Spanish and Portuguese equivalent to 25 pounds. Its first documented use was in a document, referring to the price of an @ of wine in Peru.

Some believe its shorthand for the word ‘at’ comes from mercantile shorthand for ‘each at’. So ten guppies @ $5 would cost you $50, whereas ten guppies at $5 would only cost you $5. That’s a pretty good price for guppies.

Another theory is that the symbol was borrowed from the French ‘à’, which means ‘at’. Although how an accent-grave gets swirled around a letter I have no idea. It looks pretty, I guess.

That pointy little hat above the ‘6’ on your keyboard is known as a caret. This is another hand-me-down from Latin, as its name translates to “it lacks.” This is why the caret is used as a proofreading mark, to point out where the author missed a key piece of punctuation or a letter or word. In written French and Portuguese, the symbol also shows up as a circumflex accent above a vowel, which I only mention because it sounds like a piece of home gym equipment.

Unless you’re knuckles-deep in programming with C++, Pascal or some other programming language, you probably won’t use many carets in your lifetime.

When I was growing up, this was a number sign. Once every company on the surface of the planet (and most headquartered below) switched to a touch-tone operator, it became the pound symbol. It turns out, this may actually be the hole from whence this little punctuation doodad first crawled. The abbreviation for ‘pound’ (as in weight, not British bucks) was ‘lb’. But printers didn’t want any confusion between the lowercase ‘L’ and the number ‘1’, so a new character was created with a horizontal line:

To avoid confusion (hey, it could be ‘1b’ with an eyelash resting on top), it was simplified to two slashes (/ /) with an equals sign on it, or the tic-tac-toe scribble we use today. In the UK this is never called a pound sign. They have enough to deal with in differentiating between ‘lb’ and ‘£’. It’s a hash. I have no idea what they do with it, since the British typically prefer ‘no.’ as an abbreviation for ‘number’.

But that’s how it came to be known as a hashtag. We’re lucky the engineers at Bell Labs in the 60’s didn’t get to name our Twitter conventions, or we’d refer to this with their made-up term: ‘octothorp.’

The percentage symbol evolved through mid-millennium Italian texts, from its origins as ‘per cento’ (meaning ‘per hundred’) to the easily-scrawled sign above your keyboard’s number 5. Per Cento was shortened first to a ‘p’ with a slash through its dangling foot, and the number 100 after it. Then around the year 1435, this gets truncated again to a barely legible ‘pc’ with a circle hovering above its flamboyant end-swoosh, like so:

This became two circles and a line, not unlike the divided-by sign:

Speaking of which, that symbol is officially called an obelus, and it’s derived from the same Ancient Greek word that gives us ‘obelisk’. It originated as a proof-reading tool, for scouring the works of Homer or the Gospel and pointing out sections that appeared corrupted or somehow bogus. In the classic algebra best-seller from 1659, Teutsche Algebra, the symbol was first used in its modern mathematical sense.

Alright, so the history of punctuation isn’t quite as dramatic as Einstein’s brain bits. But we take these things for granted; they sit on our keyboard, awaiting our attention so they can act as our collectively-accepted shorthand. They all had to come from somewhere.

Hey, I’ve got a thousand of these things to write. I may as well use a few to indulge my own little curiosities.

Day 660: Generational Labels – A Primer For The Young’uns

originally published October 21, 2013

Good morning children. I know what you’re thinking – you’d rather be outside, frolicking in the gumdrop sunshine, knocking a hoop down the street with a stick or catching a picture show at the local nickelodeon, but this will only take a minute. You see, you don’t yet realize that before long your cultural choices will come to define an era. Your era. That’s right, your tastes will set the font and lighting for the legacy your generation will hoist upon the world.

And that’s a big responsibility.

Before the 20th century – so here we’re going back beyond your great-grandparents’ time – nobody kept track of generational labels. People were born, they worked in the mines or the factories or the fields, then they died of scurvy and the world moved on. ‘Cultural milestones’ were almost unheard of. But the more we became connected to one another, the more we sought to define ourselves in grand, sweeping terms. Generalizations that could redact our forefathers and eventually us and our children with the economical swipe of a single brush.

So listen up. Your future – or more importantly the way your time on earth will be judged by the rest of us – is on its way. It would serve you well to learn a little something about the crowds that swarmed these streets before you.

The Lost Generation includes everyone who kicked off from the starter’s block in the late 1800s and came of age around the time of the first World War. I don’t want to depress you kids, but every generation seems to have a war or two to pin on its chest, so you’d best start watching the news now so you’ll know who to hate when the time comes. Gertrude Stein allegedly passed the term ‘Lost Generation’ on to Ernest Hemingway – it came from an outburst by a garage owner yelling at a young mechanic who had failed to properly repair Stein’s car. It was an early exclamation of “these kids today”, something you’ll probably hear your parents grumble when they discover what fluff-pop crap you’ll listen to as a teenager.

Were these folks lost because they had to share in the most globe-blasting conflict in the planet’s history thus far? Were they lost because they were the first generation to embrace feature films, jazz music, and the debauchery of the speak-easy 20’s? Did they simply not know how to follow a map very well? Ultimately this group of fine men and women are defined by a single Parisian garage owner who felt that young folks were lazy. That’s a good lesson kids – it just takes one famous slip-up to define you all.

Journalist Tom Brokaw came up with The Greatest Generation to define those who grew up during the Great Depression and went off to fight in WWII. What makes them so great? Well, they survived the Great Depression and fought in WWII. They laid the foundation for the western way of life as we know it, I suppose. They invented the earliest computers, televisions and frozen dinners. Bebop and duct tape. The microwave and silly putty. Velcro and LEGO.

But were they really the greatest generation? No, Brokaw wanted to sell a book by that name, that’s all. Every generation has had its share of dynamos and douchebags, children. Look around you – some of you will fall into one of those two categories also, though for the most part you’ll grow up to be drones, plugging your lives into the system just like the rest of us. Sorry, I’m getting a little dark here. Let’s move on.

The Silent Generation (born 1925-1942) was too young to serve in WWII, but a lot of them got to dive into Korea, so they had that. Time Magazine did a story about these kids in 1951, describing them as grave and fatalistic, with confused morals and these crazy women who wanted both a career and a family. These are Don Draper’s people – sorry, you kids probably don’t know who that is yet.

In England these kids were the Air Raid Generation, having grown up amid the panic of the second World War. Some of these kids helped to invent rock & roll though. Shit, you kids probably don’t know what that is either. Put down that Bieber garbage and ask your parents who Eddie Cochrane was.

The Baby Boomer generation is the most important generation of all time – just ask any of them. When your great-grandparents came home from WWII, they made lots of babies. Don’t ask me how – that’s for another article. But those babies became the first generation of youth with a real power to affect the marketplace. Their war was Vietnam, and if they weren’t there, they were probably back home fighting another war, against the war in Vietnam.

Baby Boomers think of themselves as a special generation, and in a way they’re right. They were the first to have a youth culture, graced with that sweet spot in history when technology connected us and delivered digestible culture to every hi-fi and console set in the country. Also, there were drugs. Ask your grandparents about those when your parents aren’t around and you’ll learn a lot.

Many of you probably have parents who belong to Generation X. Born between the mid-60’s and the late 70’s / early 80’s, we’re the gaggle of guys and gals who got screwed over when the Sexual Revolution turned into AIDS-mania. Sure, we’re known for being more accepting of racial, gender and sexual orientation equality than our folks, but we’re also the first generation who decided it was cool to be unimpressed by anything. Our war was Desert Storm. Whatever, we won in, like, fifteen minutes or something.

We got a little mopey and disenfranchised with society for a while, yet we embraced brand culture like it was going out of style (which it apparently never will). We watched our music on MTV. We had no Beatles, but dammit we had Star Wars first, and even your generation will grow up loving that shit. We were slackers, but one study at the University of Michigan claims we turned out rather well-balanced and happy. To be honest, I’m a little surprised we made it.

I was born right on the cusp between Generation X and Generation Y, which begins around 1977 or so and stretches into the 90’s. These were the first kids to grow up with computers in every house, and with video games as a staple of home life. They’re known as the Millennial Generation because they were in a culturally-relevant demographic when the year 2000 hit. Some call Gen-Y’ers ‘Generation Me’ because of a trend of narcissism and entitlement that permeates through them. I’m not quite so brash.

Their war was the mess over in Afghanistan and Iraq, and like the Baby Boomers there were a lot of them against the war back home. Except their music wasn’t anywhere near as good.

As much as we older folks like to rag on the Gen-Y crowd for coming of age right around the time the internet stuck its flag in our collective brains, they’re actually a civic-minded bunch with a strong sense of community. Snarly Youtube comments notwithstanding.

This brings me to you lot, known as Generation Z because we seem obsessed with developing labels for generations before actually learning the traits that will define them. You have quite the canvas upon which to paint your legacy, being the first to enter the connected web-wide-world and experience it from the moment your eyes can focus long enough to check out the latest Vine clip.

You are the most diverse generation of children in American history, so you’d better one-up the eras that came before you and figure out how the hell to get along. According to one study you are the least likely to believe that such a thing as the American Dream exists. I hope you go through your cynical, hate-the-world phase quickly and quietly, and move on to fixing the crap-heap we’ve left in your possession.

And take care of the old folks. We didn’t screw everything up, honest. It was messed up when we got here; we just didn’t know how to fix it.