Category Archives: Language

I Tell Jokes!

What do you call a man laughing obnoxiously in a high class restaurant?

An amused douche!

Get it?  Amused douche/amuse-bouche?  Oh, come on, it’s funny!  You obviously have no taste in humor.  Unless you liked it.  Then you are a connoisseur of comedy.

I Dislike The Term African-American

Language is a strange animal.  String a few words together and they can evoke emotion and meaning far beyond what face value would imply.

A lot of people hate the term “African-American”.  Mostly, the people you hear railing against the term complain of political correctness run amok or some other such nonsense.  Despite their gross wrongness, I do share the anti-pc group’s distaste for the term “African-American”.  It took me a long time to be able to communicate why I dislike it so much.  I came to realize that, to me,  “African-American” has an Otherness to it.  Meaning a way to set a group of people apart from normal.  I am an “American”, you are an “African-American”.  Even the way it’s spoken implies Otherness.  It’s a very hard “African” followed by a slight pause then a soft “American” that kind of slips quietly off the tongue.  The implication is that when identifying a Black person, you know all you need to know from the first word and the second is just an additional identifier.

Another reason why I dislike the term “African-Americans” are the implications of the identities that our country (and Europeans) stole from the human beings who were brought over here as slaves.  Think about it, we have Indian-Americans and Japanese-Americans and Mexican-Americans.  And then there are African-Americans.  We so screwed up the continent of Africa that millions of people have lost their origin stories.  It is absolutely galling.  But it is done and nothing can change it.

My dislike for the term “African-American” has caused me to use the term “Black”.  I’m White, you’re Black, he’s Brown, she’s Yellow.  The problem is, there is certainly still an Otherness quality to it, though less so than “African-American” in my opinion.  But it’s still problematic.  It is still taking a large group of people (and a traditionally repressed people) and strips them of their individuality by reducing them to a color.

So what’s a person to do?

Well, first off, I would say that it’s almost never ok to describe an individual as African-American.  If you want to identify their nationality, they are American.  Period.  Full stop.  If you want to describe an individual, they can be a small letter color, but we really should be able to get beyond the black/white descriptions since the spectrum is so incredibly varied.  Not to mention the world is much more interesting with alabaster and ebony goddesses and creamy and mocha skin and burnt sienna Speakers of the House.

As a grouping of people, I’d propose a bit of word reversal.  Use “American-African” instead of “African-American”.  Being aware of your roots is very important, but most important is being able to recognize that you are an American citizen deserving of equal protection and equal rights and where you came from originally is of secondary importance.  The most important reason for the reversal, though, is the subtle reminder to others that use the word “American-African” that first and foremost, this person is in the same boat and not a different one.  The same would hold for American-Pakistanis or American-Indians, etc.  It may seem a little silly, but I believe word order matters.  If you’re describing anything, you tend to put the adjectives in the order of most important to least important and the listener pays greater attention to the first adjective than the second.

Yes, this is some real pie-in-the-sky thinking and yes, I fully recognized that I am an incredibly over-privileged white boy waxing philosophically about topics that I have zero practical experience with.  These are just my thoughts which may or may not be stupid.  Likely the former.  I’d be interested in what you think.


Language is universal.  Words are not.  Well, except for one word.  Huh?  That wasn’t a question, that was the word.  Huh?  It’s the universal expression for “what did you just say?”  Don’t believe me?  Watch this short video:


Pretty cool, huh?  But it’s not just a quick video that proves this.  A recent study posted on PLOS ONE goes into all of the details and explains the methods followed to achieve this conclusion.  How is it 2013 and we’re just discovering this universally uniting language nugget?  Well, “huh” really isn’t a word.  Not in the dictionary sense anyway.  It’s more of a verbal tic thank anything else, used to express emotion and those words don’t normally make it into the written language.  And written language is what is most often used to study similarities between languages.

But why now?  My best guess is because of the Internet.  Sites like YouTube have allowed linguists to study hundreds of languages all from the comfort of their own home.  Someone probably noticed “huh?” pop up in a few and then decided to investigate further.   And a greater understanding of that which unites us was achieved as a result.  The world is truly a remarkable place.

Gendered Pronouns: Great Evil Or Greatest Evil?

I have long despised gendered languages.  Partly because it makes them more difficult to learn, having to memorize both a word and the gender that goes along with that word.  Mostly, though, because it’s always struck me as fairly sexist.

The language we speak has been shown to change the way we think about things.  There have been studies of gendered languages which show that if a noun is feminine in one language and masculine in another, it actually changes the words individuals use to describe the noun.  As a made up example so you understand what I’m talking about , take the word “chair”.  If “chair” is a masculine noun in a language, people were more likely to use more masculine descriptions like “sturdy” or “solid”.  If “chair” is a feminine noun in a language, people were more likely to use more feminine descriptions like “elegant” or “dainty”.

Because of the lack of gendered nouns, I have always thought of English as superior to other languages.  English is illogical, self-contradicting, and phonetically unpronounceable, but at least it doesn’t have gendered nouns!  It does have gendered pronouns, though.  They’re really just as bad.  Maybe worse, even.  At least gendered nouns aren’t talking about an individual. Gendered pronouns change the way we think about an individual and reveal our own prejudices.

Think about this sentence: She jogs in the park every morning.  The word “she” in that sentence offers zero pertinent information into the forming of the sentence.  What it does is form a picture in your mind of a female jogging.  Chances are, if you’re a cis male, that female is also shapely and well endowed and bounces in all the right places.  It’s certainly a pleasant image to have, but it is also likely nothing close to reality.  The sentence itself has altered our reality.

It’s a fairly benign example.  Try this experiment, though.  Take a sheet of paper and a pen and write down the first things you think of when you read this sentence:  She was raped.  Get it all down before you go any further.  What did you write?  If you’re like me, it would be a laundry list of victim blaming nonsense interspersed with some sympathetic words.  I am one of the least likely to victim blame, but our culture is so infused with victim blaming that they’re the first words that come to mind.  Now try the same thing with this sentence:  He was raped.  For me, it was much more difficult to come up with things to write.  Did you have the same experience?  Maybe you wrote something about prison or dropping a bar of soap?  Why does the altering of a pronoun so greatly change our view of an unforgivable act?

I wonder how completely neutering our language would alter the way we think about things.  I’ve spent some time trying to come up with genderless pronouns for the English language but everything just sounds weird.  Making up words is harder than it sounds.  ‘It’, as a pronoun, already has connotations of non-humanness that would make it impossible to use as a replacement.  I’m somewhat partial to using the Italian word ‘lei’ because I’ve always been fascinated by it being both the word for ‘she’ and the formal word for ‘you’ and I like the way it sounds.  I also like the word ‘ser’ which is ‘to be’ in Spanish because it sounds English-y and already has a etymology of being built into it.  What words would you be in favor of?

It would be a fascinating experiment to take public domain works and replace all the gendered pronouns and nouns with genderless equivalents and see how it changes our thinking of the stories.  Imagine a love story where you’re never quite know who is the male and who is the female character.  Imagine a poem where you’re not sure if it was written for a male or a female.  I think we would find that our gender prejudices are much deeper than we suppose them to be.

It’s Care-Uh-Mel, You Ignorant Morans!

Anyone who says otherwise likes to kick dogs and drown kittens.

The language differences of America maps are making the rounds and they’re pretty cool.  Be sure to go to the original site for even more language difference maps.

For many things, I am not a normal Chicagoan (syrup = sir-up).  For others, I strive but fail to be Southern (I love “y’all” but can’t stop using “you guys”).  For others, I am at a complete loss (“bubbler” and “the devil is beating his wife”? WTF?).


Idiom of the day

Today’s idiom of the day is “scared shitless”.  Did you know that it’s totally a thing?  On some level, of course, I did.  But like many other idioms, I use it more for effect than for actual meaning.  Because, let’s be honest, almost everyone that is reading this can probably count on one hand the number of people who have crapped their pants in terror.  Unless you’re military and have seen action, I guess…

But it actually happens.  In times of extreme terror, the body of many animals (including humans) involuntarily voids its bowels.  And there’s science behind it!  It came as a surprise to me that something that we normally consider a completely voluntary reflex can suddenly become involuntary.  I couldn’t find any reference to chemicals that get released that cause it to become involuntary, but I assume it has something to do with the blast of adrenalin the body releases in times of stress.

On top of that, though, there is a very good reason for the body to do so.  Think about it.  If something is that scary, your fight or flight reflex is probably in full flight mode.  Your body signals that it’s all hands on deck for full speed ahead.  (Wow, is that sentence nautically historically challenged.)  Hey, what are you red blood cells doing helping with the digestion of food?  Drop what you’re doing and get up here, we need to move!  And so the body quite literally drops what it’s doing.

Hopefully, that extra boost will be just what you need to get away from the big, ugly, dangerous predator that is bearing down quickly on you.  Probably not, though, since you’re a human who finds it inconvenient that you have to walk all the way over to the refrigerator to get food.

And since we’re already getting all scatological, did you know that pissing yourself in fear is worse?  It means that you have lost complete control of your body and your ability to think and you will probably just curl up in a fetal position and suck your thumb waiting for death.

This is important information to know the next time you and your friends find yourself facing a grizzly bear.  It’s not the one who runs slowest who loses, it’s the one who pisses himself.  Or, if you’re part of a fire team that just got ambushed by a group of armed insurgents, the guy who pissed himself is the one you have to protect until he can function again.  Because that’s what you do.

Shame Hair

In the German language, pubic hair translates to Schamhaar, which literally means ‘shame hair’.  I wonder what that says about Germans.  But more importantly, Schamhaar is an essential word to know if you plan on going to Oktoberfest in München.