Thursday, December 13, 2012

Crikey! I'm gobsmacked! Bespoke crosses the pond

Crikey! I'm gobsmacked! “Bespoke” crosses the pond.


                           Howard Richler

Some years ago while on a trip to England, I encountered some words and expressions that made me realize the importance of being bilingual in my mother tongue. For example, I asked someone in London where I could find an ATM. She looked nonplussed but her companion translated, “he means a “hole-in-the-wall.” Also, I discovered that in some English locales a speed bump is referred to as a “sleeping policeman” and that the British enjoy a bevy of insulting terms for people such as “swot” (boring, studious student), “chav”(bad-mannered person), “anorak”(anal-retentive person) and “poncey” (effeminate) that have limited currency on this side of the Atlantic. I also recall being perplexed upon seeing a sign announcing “bespoke industrial units” and another advertising “bespoke shoes.” I got a clearer idea of the term when I saw yet another sign that read “bespoke tailors.”

“Bespoke,” however, is now ubiquitous in North America. For example, on November 7th we read in the National Post that “Sean Connery's Bond was the Errol Flynn of the swinging '60s, a dapper swashbuckling Saville Row type in bespoke Turnbull & Asser shirts.” Often, the usage transcends the boundary of Saville Row as in the following from the Globe and Mail: “Luxury travel lovers flocked to the Spoke Club for an intimate event with Mr. & Mrs Smith, a bespoke booking service for custom travel property.”

“Bespoke” has also taken the USA by storm. In the New York city area there are over twenty “bespoke” companies including “Bespoke Surgical,” “Bespoke Barber Shop,” and at least one store simply called “Bespoke.” Also, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office lists over 40 active registrations and applications for “bespoke” brand names with the majority of the patents being filed in the past two years. If you have a USA bespoke product or service to offer - act quickly. One person wanted to use as their web address but as this belonged to Bespoke Software, he had to settle for Bespoke Innovations.

The OED defines bespoke as “ordered to be made, as distinguished from READY-MADE”; also said of a tradesman who makes goods to order.” Strangely, the word's first citation in 1755 refers to a play but by the middle of the 19th century the word was most often employed in the shoemaking trade to refer to custom shoes. An 1866 citation from Chamber’s Encyclopedia says that “the shoe-making tradition is divided into two departments-the bespoke and the ready-made or safe business.” The tailoring industry adopted the word to describe the cloth customers select in advance for their suits. The cloth thus became “spoken for” or “bespoke.”

Bespoke long ago shed its tailoring sense in the UK and on my aforementioned jaunt I recall seeing an unlikely sign in Yorkshire advertising “bespoke fish & chips.” However, in North America the same process of applying the term to a variety of sundry products has occurred This can be verified by googling “bespoke tricycles,” “bespoke underwear” “bespoke toilet seats” “bespoke condoms” and “bespoke legal advice.” So far, there isn't a listing for “bespoke criminals.”

So why has “bespoke” become such as a popular marketing word? Justin Watters, the co-founder of the Bespoke Investment Group LLC based in Harrison, New York says “Like a bespoke tailor investors measure risk tolerance needs and outlook in order to develop a strategy that fits their unique needs.” According to Mark-Evan Blackman, a professor at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, “bespoke has.. started seeping into our consciousness as a term for our gold standard, as a male equivalent of couture.” So, it would seem “bespoke” has become a marketing buzzword to convey the superiority of a product or service you are offering. I suppose that the term “custom” has become so commonplace that it is often replaced by the fresher “bespoke” to entice customers.

Soon, no doubt, the revived “bespoke” will lose its freshness; overuse will make everyone jaded as to what it signifies and marketeers will have to find another high-faluting word to bamboozle consumers.

Howard Richler's bespoke book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published by Ronsdale Press next spring.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Saving Endangered Languages

(This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 edition of the  legal magazine Lexpert under the title :When We Lose a Language).

What we lose when we lose a language


Howard Richler

The adjective “endangered” is usually twinned with the noun “species” as the onslaught of civilization has brought about a diminution in the planet's biodiversity.

But not only are many species on the verge of extinction, many languages are teetering towards oblivion. Of the approximately 7000 languages spoken on our planet, it is estimated that anywhere from 50% to 90% will not survive the end of the century. So whereas the largest 80 to 100 languages in the world such as English, Chinese, Urdu and French are spoken by 4.5 billion people, there are around 3500 languages whose total number of speakers equals no more than ten million; an average of less than 3000 speakers each. Generally speaking a language is regarded as secure if it has over 100,000 speakers. However, many of the languages spoken today are on the abyss of extinction having fewer than 100 speakers.

Not surprisingly, many of the native languages in Canada fall into the endangered camp. Only Cree, Ojibway ans Inuktikut are regarded as relatively secure. In many of the 53 Canadian aboriginal languages, more than half of the population can't communicate at all in their mother tongue and fluency declines drastically among the youth of the tribe. Hilda Nicholson, a spokesperson for the Mohawk band of Kahnawake, told me that the fluency rate in the 65 year and older category was around 75%, but in the 6-15 age group, this rate drops to under 20% So, there is a clear sign when a language is in danger. Parents stop teaching it to children and children stop wanting to learn the language of their ancestors. Unfortunately, the obvious role of schools is limited no matter how great the effort of the school program, the ultimate fate of the language is determined by whether it is used on a daily basis in casual conversation.

So, why should we care? Several things are lost when we lose languages. First, we lose cultural knowledge. Since there are around only 200 written languages, when a non-written language vanishes we lose the beliefs and stories that may provide insights into our humanity. These oral histories could possibly inspire us by providing a new way to perceive the world.

More concretely, the loss of languages is also a loss for science because a language represents an adaptive technology. For example, the Inuit language possesses approximately 100 words for sea ice and this instructs one about complexities not generally known in other languages. When it comes to knowledge about bees we probably have much to learn from the Kayapo language of Brazil. Its apian vocabulary contains such domains as flight patterns, bee odour, quantity and quality of honey, and the edibility of larva. According to Mark Pagel, a biomathematician at Oxford, different languages have “particular habits of mind” and learning a specific language can possibly alter the brain. For example, Pagel interprets the inability of Japanese adults to differentiate between “la” and “ra” sounds as meaning that on a physiological level there may be brain distinctions based on language.

The difference, however, between Japanese and English pales compared to some nuances we find in other languages. For example, it was once assumed that certain sentence structures were not possible. So while one can say “I will eat this kangaroo” it was believed that in no langauge would some rational person utter “This will eat kangaroo I.” But then linguists “discovered” the Waripiri of the Australian Outback. Not only do tribesmen state in Waripiri, “This will eat kangaroo I.” They also say “Kangaroo will this eat I” and “Eat will kangaroo this I.” By observing which rules hold and which do not (e.g., “will” always comes in the second position in the sentence), linguists have been better able to set parameters for universal grammar. But in order to test and refine universal grammar, linguists require a myriad of examples from the grammars of diverse languages. Unfortunately, until recently the data base has been shrinking drastically.

Until recently” is used in the last sentence because hope is on the horizon. This past June Google introduced the “Endangered Language Project,” (ELP) a website that allows people and organizations involved in language preservation to find and share the most current and comprehensive information about endangered languages. With ELP, Google provides its technology and vast storage capacity to create a headquarters where data can be shared in a variety of forms, such as text, audio and video files. Although Google launched this endeavour it will shortly pass the gauntlet over to these two organizations involved in the field of language preservation: The First Peoples' Cultural Council based in Brentwood Bay. B.C. and the Institute for Language Information and Technology at East Michigan University.

Howard's next book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published next Spring.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Facebook Word Quizzes-150-200

150-What musician's name is an anagram to retrogradely?

151-What do these words have in common? shingle-potash-himself-manger

152-What do these words have in common? braises-mails-mason-rains-resign-super

153-What do these words have in common? landing-denser-topic-sales

154- Name the writer whose name is an anagram to “I'll make a wise phrase.”

155-Name the actor whose name is an anagram to “I value nicer role.”

156- Name 2 words that rhyme with each other that are synonyms with 2 other words that rhyme with each

157-Name 3 words that have 4 letter consecutive strings.

158-Name a US city of 6 letters that spells another word when reversed.

159-I’m where yester follows today and tomo is in the middle. What am I?

160-Name a phrase that features this letter string. “ouea.”

161-What do these words have in common? carnal-snore-tonic

162-What pro sports teams are an amalgam of these anagrams? avenged sills, unhinged paste, sparser pucks, & salon misprints

163-What do these words have in common? jungle-shampoo-juggnaut-thug

164-What do these words have in common? does-number-unionized

165-What do these words have in common? blond-nuthouse-kiln

166- What US capital's last 2 letters are the same as the state's abbreviation?

167-What do these words have in common? dottier-caption-Tory

168-Name the person whose name is featured in these 2 anagrams. hated for ill +mother-in-law
169-What is distinctive about this sentence?-If you want to know what Barack Obama wants to do to our country, why don’t you just ask John McCain, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump, Sarah Palin or (God forbid) Mitt?
170-What makes this sentence distinctive?- A cockamamie Commie mocks a gay, sagacious Eskimo.

171-What makes these sentences distinctive? Sununu purports to trust Proust/Support our troops/Not on your own

172-What do these words have in common? lust-election-Lenin-alar

173-What do these words have in common? Graceland-Indonesia-Armenia

174-Presidential anagrams-Decipher the following: He bugs gore- See a thing go wrong-Govern

clever lad-He did view the war doings-Truth searcher-Rash army runt

175-Presidential anagram-Decipher the following:A barbarian smoked teacups

176-What do these words have in common? scornful-reappearance-appraising-fortunately

177-What do these words have in common? apple-compute-apish-whip

178 – Decipher the following Hill



179-What do these words have in common? catamaran, mulligatawny, pariah

180-Name a world capital that is an anagram to an insect.

181-What do these words have in common? anime-nominates

182What do these words have in common? cherries, dessert, salad, salmon, soup (aside from being foods)

183-What cities are these words letter banks to? antic-gouda-car-man T

184-Name a word shortened in front and on back.

185-Name a city of at least 10 letters comprised only of odd letters. e.g., a=1 c=3 e=5

186-What do these words have in common? -banter-mob-sham-snob-talented

187-What do these words have in common? assassination-bloodstained -sanctimonious-scuffle

188-Name a verb derived from a city

189-Name two words pronounced the same that share no letters.

190-Name a 6 letter word composed of only 2 letters in the alphabet.

191-What do these surnames have in common? Rivkin, Dworkin, Malkov

192-What do these words have in common? aback,grackle, parks

193-What do these words have in common? begonia, chauvinist, guillotine,

194-What do these words have in common? venison, bacon, sausage, poultry, sole

195-What do these words have in common? tangerine-manger -raincoat

196-Name acity in the Middle East that is an anagram to a resident of a Middle East country.

197-Name a singer whose name is an anagram to urodele-(type of amphibian)

198-Name an actor whose name is an anagran to Energy cool ego

199 -What do these words have in common? cravat, bungalow, suede, jeans, denim

200-What do these words have in common? boycott-dunce-maverick

Friday, November 9, 2012


(This article first appeared in the Nov 2012 Senior Times.)
There's a skunk's aroma wafting through many English words


Howard Richler

If a reader peruses this article should I be A)disinterested or B)nonplussed? It totally depends on the meaning abscribed to the three italicized words. Let me explain.

Traditionally, “disinterested,” meant impartial but nowadays the vast majority of people use it to mean “not interested.” I regret this modern usage because an important distinction is being lost and would hope that hockey referees are disinterested in the traditional rather than the new sense. “Nonplussed,” similarly has gone from meaning “bewildered” to “unfazed.” This was the sense Barack Obama used the word when he stated last year, “I've been really happy by how nonplussed they've {his daughters} been” by media scrutiny. Also, while the original 15th century meaning of “peruse” was “examine carefully,” by the 16th century it was often used merely as a synonym for “read.”

This also asks the question, (please don't resort to begging questions ) how long do we insist that the older meanings should prevail?

Truth be told, there is no simple answer because there is no definitive arbiter on what qualifies as proper English. According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and other American dictionaries, many new meanings are acceptable. For example, “peruse” can mean not only to “examine carefully” but to “read over in a casual manner”; “disinterested” can mean “not interested” as well as “impartial”; and “enormity” can mean the same as “enormousness.” On the other hand, some dictionaries and many learned usage commentators regard these positions as linguistic heresy.

Lexicographer Bryan Garner in Garner's Modern American Usage states that “when a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another – a phase that might take ten years or a hundred – it's likely to be the subject of dispute.” He adds that “a word is most hotly disputed in the middle of the process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers.” He characterizes these disputed words as “skunked” and therefore best avoided. Hence, although there might be some ancient pedant who believes that “egregious” should still mean remarkably good as it literally means in Latin, “above the flock,” the fact remains that it has not been used in a positive sense since 1845 and will not make the “skunked” list.

The reality, of what qualifies as a “skunked” word is not as clear-cut as Garner pretends.

Can anyone say definitively when a word has been “skunked”? Garner includes in his list of skunked words, “decimate” and “hopefully” whereas I, and many others, regard the use of “decimate” to mean “kill one-tenth” and the exclusive use of “hopefully” to mean only “in a hopeful manner” and not “one hopes,” or “it is to be hoped,” to be hopelessly moribund. Some prescriptive language commentators decry the use of “jejune” to mean “childish” and point out that change in meaning stemmed from the mistaken belief that the word stemmed from the French word for “young” jeune and the Latin juvenus. Notwithstanding this mistaken belief, dictionaries accept “childish” as one of the meanings of “jejune.” Similarly, some language purists argue that the word “dilemma'' should only be used to refer to a choice between two unpleasant alternatives and not a plight or predicament, but most dictionaries allow for this latter sense.

Also, we must acknowledge that some usages that might not be acceptable in British English are acceptable in North American English. Examples of such are the verbs “careen” and “aggravate.” The former (notwithstanding that it should be “career”) is common in North America English just as using aggravate to mean “annoy” is well established in both Canada and the USA. Relative to the use of aggravate to mean “annoy,” Wynford Hicks advises in Quite Literally, “Use with care since purists disapprove of the second {annoy} usage.” The reality, however, is that this usage has been entrenched in North America for many decades.

In any case, I'm content as long as you're not disinterested in this article in the modern sense.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Facebook Quizzzes 101-150

Facebook Quizzes-101-150

101-What do these words have in common?-job, nice, polish, reading, tangier

102-What do these words have in common?-coach, goulash, hussar, paprika

103-What tennis player's names are anagrams to “nail” & “grass an aide”?

104-Name a city in N. Africa that is an anagram for a nickname for a US state.

105- What tennis player's name is an anagram to “Me, thin man”?

106-What do these words have in common? amok,bamboo,compound

107-What tennis player's name is an anagram to “Hi June tennis”?

108-What do these words have in common? abrade,Aryans, glanced, Italian, Rwandan pearly

109-Name a tennis player whose name is an anagram to a former QB.

110-Name a color that is an anagram to an animal.

111-Name a former US Open champion whose name is comprised only of 1 pt letters in Scrabble.

112-Name a word of at least 10 letters comprised only of letters in first half of alphabet.

113-Name 2 tennis players whose surnames are palindromes.

114-Name a food of 7letters made up of letters in the first half of the alphabet.

115-Name a former tennis champion whose name featured only 1 vowel.

116-Name a 7 lettered word with 5 vowels.

117-What tennis player's name is an anagram to “server itch”?

118-What do these words have in common?escalator thermos aspirin plexiglass zipper t

119-What do these words have in common? infest-flow-barfed--wafer-confer

120-Name 2 animals of at least 6 letters comprised of only odd letters in the alphabet . e.g. A=1 C=3

121-What former political leader's name is an anagram to “That great charmer”? -

122- What do these words have in common?-abducted bewilder crashing feverish

123-What is the only number in reverse alpabetical order?

124- Name a singer whose name is an anagram to “Presbyterians”

125-Name cities that feature only oe repeating vowel for a. e.i. O & u

126-What do these surnames have in common? Blanchard-Bouchard-Beliveau-Broderick

127-Name a country of at least ten letters where no letters repeat themselves?

128-Name a city in Massachusetts that is an anagram to an animal.

129-Name a country that is an anagram to a dance.

130-Name an Asian city that is an anagram to a part of the body.

131-Name a former political leader whose surname is an anagram to a part of the body.

132-Name a western US city that is an anagram to a nicjkname for a pro sports team.

133- Name a Canadian city other than Toronto where every letter is worth 1 point in Scrabble.

134- Name a European city of 1million where every letter is worth 1 point in Scrabble.

135 – Nme 2 animals of at least 7 letters where every letter is in first half of alphabet.

136-Name a term for an animal of 5 letters where every letter appears in second half of alphabet.

137 -What US city can you make from “law”?

138- Name a car, a tennis player & tree composed only of Roman numerals.

139-Name a Us state & its capital that end in the same 2 letters.

140-Name the husband of a first lady where every letter in name is worth 1 pt in Scrabble.

141-What do all the letters in this sentence have in common?-A big, bad imbecilic bald-headed Black medical academic blackmailed a mild, amicable middle-aged deaf Micmac milkmaid.

142-Name 2 European cities made up only of letters in second half of alphabet.

143-Name a word of at least 5 letters that is a palindrome and made up only of Roman numerals.

144-What geographic significance do the words “nest” and “lions”have?

145- What do these words have in common?--plea-coma-duma , alight

146-What film star's name is an anagram to “So I'm cuter”?

147-What do these words have in common?-plunge,,deliverance

148-What film star's name is an anagram to “costumier”?

149-Name a country that is an anagram of a word that is a synonym to a word that is a homophone to a number.?

150-What musician's name is an anagram to “retrogradely”?

Bespoke Crosses the Pond

(The following article appeared in  the October Lexpert under the title "Bespoke" Crosses the Pond.)
Translating English English into regular English


Howard Richler

England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”(George Bernard Shaw)

Pshaw Mr. Shaw! Exaggerating the differences between British and North American English has been a time-honoured convention. In 1789, lexicographer Noah Webster predicted that over British English and North American English would diverge to a point that they became as different as Dutch, Danish and Swedish are from German or from each other. Clearly, this fear has not materialized.

Because my life-partner hails from Yorkshire, I am used to hearing her being “peckish” rather than “hungry,” “she wears “jumpers” not “sweaters,” uses “bins” and “flannels” instead of “garbage cans,” and “washcloths” and gets pricked by “flu jabs” not “flu shots.” Also, our bathrooms contain “loo rolls” not “toilet paper.”

On a recent trip to the United Kingdom, however, I was surprised by the number of words and expressions that left me befuddled. I asked someone in London where I could find an ATM. She looked nonplussed but her companion translated, “he means a “hole-in-the-wall.” Often my non-comprehension would occur upon espying commercial signs. For example, I was perplexed on seeing a sign announcing “bespoke industrial units” and another advertising “bespoke shoes.” I got a clearer idea when I saw another sign that read “bespoke tailors.” The OED defines bespoke as “ordered to be made, as distinguished from ready-made.” By the way, ready-made clothes in the UK are not referred to as “off the rack” but rather as “off the peg.” Some other British-sounding usages I noticed were the pompous (if not oxymoronic) sign in York that advertised “purveyor of fine fish & chips,” and the announcement on the Tube to “alight for Buckingham Palace.”

Reading British newspapers introduced me to some new terms. I spotted many newspaper usages of the word “laddish,” an adjective used to describe testosterone-addled males. Here are three examples: “The laddish letters of Kingsley Amis”; a pop music impresario described as “defiantly laddish and magnificently queenly”; and a denunciation of the “laddish attitudes ingrained in footballers from youth.”

Another unfamiliar word to me was “swot” which performed double duty as a noun and a verb in British dailies: “Any swot lucky enough to be blessed with BBC Choice can tonight experience ‘an evening of programmes dedicated to one of the greatest singer-songwriters and one of the most influential political artists of modern times’.”, and “I wanted to swot up on rock history.” The OED defines swot(v) as “to work or study at school” and swot(n) as “one who studies hard”. In colloquial use as a noun, it seems to be used most often as a synonym for “nerd.” The OED quotes one theory that the term was originated by the following terse comment by Scottish Professor of Mathematics William Wallace while employed at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, England: “It mades one swot”= (sweat).

British terms can be more picturesque than their counterparts in North America. A good example, is our inelegant “speed bump” which is often rendered in British English as “sleeping policeman.” that is a direct translation of the French gendarme couché.

Speaking of French, when dining in British restaurants or pubs, you might get the impression that the Normans had re-seized power. “Eggplant” and “zucchini” are supplanted respectively in England by “aubergine” and “courgettes,” and a Brit is more likely to wipe egg off his face with a “serviette,” rather than a “napkin.” Other menu items A North American might not be familiar with are “bangers” (sausages) and “bubble and squeak.” This dish originally contained beef along with the left-over cooked potatoes and cabbage, though today people don't generally bother with the meat. The name is apparently due to the sounds that are emitted during cooking, the vegetables bubble as they are boiled and then squeak in the frying pan.

Judging by the words on menus, you might be loath to order some pub grub fare, so let me deconstruct their meanings. “Faggots” is a type of meatball made with pork and beef liver, and “toad in the hole” consists of suusagesin Yorkshire pudding batter usually served with vegetables and gravy. Then there is the dish that sounds like a venereal disease- “spotted dick.” It is actually a pudding dessert consisting of a suet-based sponge cake and fruit such as raisins or currants.


Howard Richler’s latest book is Can I Have a Word With You?

Thursday, October 11, 2012


Howard Richler: Don’t read this if you have hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

Four score years ago, minus one, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”
Well, it appears Roosevelt was wrong. The site lists more than 500 phobias that might plague someone. Some aren’t widespread, such as cherophobia, the fear of gaiety; leukophobia, the fear of the colour white; geniophobia, the fear of chins; and genuphobia, the fear of knees. Moreover, one suspects that with a fear like arachibutyrophobia, the fear that peanut butter will adhere to the root of your mouth, and hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, the fear of long words, there is more neology at play than psychology.
Years ago I was convinced that my wheaten terrier suffered from automatonophobia because he once barked at a scarecrow. The aforementioned list defines this condition as “the fear of ventriloquist dummies, wax statues, anything that falsely represents a sentient being.”
I was made aware of this condition thanks to an article I had just read in Time magazine about phobias. This article also highlighted a woman who wore rubber-soled shoes when opening a refrigerator and in the event of a lightbulb not functioning would wait hours for someone to change it for her. Nor could she shop for clothes lest static on garments impel her to run screaming from a shop.
Also swimming at night was out of the question, lest underwater lights electrocute her. This woman suffered from electrophobia, the morbid fear of electricity; lists it before eleutherophobia, fear of freedom, and after eisoptrophobia, the fearing of mirrors, or seeing oneself in a mirror.
Fears may have a flip side. If you possess uranophobia you’re afraid of heaven—hadephobia, your aversion is hell. Calignephobia denotes a fear of beautiful women and cacophobia, a fear of ugliness. If you’re afraid of all your relatives, you have syngenesophobia. If you’re afraid of your mother-in-law, you have pentheraphobia; if both your in-laws terrify you, your condition is called soceraphobia. Medomalacuphobia is the fear of losing an erection, medorthophobia is the fear of an erect penis while ithyphallophobia is the fear of seeing, thinking about, or having an erect penis. Who knew?
Many of the phobias listed are recorded in the OED, including aerophobia, fear of drafts; bogyphobia, fear of bogeymen; coprophobia, fear of feces; deipnophobia, fear of dining; siderodromophobia, fear of rail travel; tæniiphobia, fear of tapeworm; and triskaidekaphobia, fear of the number 13. If you suffer from papaphobia, the OED relates that you possess a “distempered dread of the pope or popery.”
Xenophobia is the fear of foreign people. One can, not suprisingly given the plethora of phobias, specify which particular group freaks you out. Some examples are Bolshe (Bolsheviks), Franco or Gallo (French), Judeo (Jews), Sino (Chinese), Teuto or Germano (German) and Waloon (Waloons), French-speaking people living in southern Belgium).
However, if you are afflicted with Hellenologophobia, you are not afraid of Greeks, but of Greek terms or complicated scientific terminology. Just recently, after Canadian diplomats at the United Nations walked out when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech, the Iranian leader accused Canada of “Iranophobia.” This coinage, however, has not yet been approved by the OED.
Seemingly any animal can make someone cringe: bird (ornithophobia), cat (ailurophobia), chicken (alektorophobia), fish (ichthyophobia), frogs (ranidaphobia), horse (equinophobia), otter (lutraphobia), shellfish (ostraconophobia), toad (bufonophobia) and wasp (spheksophobia).
The word and suffix phobia comes from the Greek phobos, “fear.” Phobos was the son of the Greek god of war Ares. When he accompanied Dad into battle, Phobos had the affect of instilling fear in all whom he encountered. The first citation of “phobia” in the OED is in 1786: “I shall begin by defining Phobia … to be a fear of an imaginary evil, or an undue fear of a real one.”
Samuel Coleridge is credited with the next citation in a letter he wrote in 1801 in which he employed a facetious usage: “I have a perfect phobia of inns and coffee-houses.”
Roosevelt was right about one thing. We must fear fear itself. This is listed as phobophobia—the fear of fear itself.
Howard Richler’s next book, From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts, will be published next spring.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Singularization of They

(A version of this article appeared recently in the October edition of Lexpert).

The singularization of “they”


Howard Richler

Although the English language offers its speaker a large vocabulary, it is missing some useful words particularly in the realm of referencing other people. For example, many people are not comfortable with referencing their in-laws as Mom and Dad, yet are not comfortable with calling them by their first names. Some term of endearment more accurate than Mom or Dad would fill this void.

The English language also lacks a name for unmarried persons who share a

domestic and romantic relationship. Terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” sound adolescent, “lover” is too blatant, “lady friend” and “gentlemen” are euphemistic and “significant other” is meaningless. Ironically, Quebec French has solved this problem by importing the English word “chum” to fulfill this vocabulary need. Many other words are used in English to refer to this relationship, such as “partner,” “companion,” and “cohabitor” but all of them are either euphemistic-sounding or inaccurate. In 1980 the U.S. Census Bureau invented the acronym POSSLQ which accurately describes this relationship. It stands for “Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.” Not surprisingly, the term is not employed outside of bureaucratic venues.

Seeing that the Quebec French has solved this problem by usurping the English word “chum.” I suggest we exact retribution by appropriating a French word. My suggestion is the word “co-vivant.” English already uses the French term “bon vivant” to refer to someone who enjoys the “good life,” and putting the prefix “co” in front of “vivant” highlights the idea that one’s pleasures should be shared -the essence of a relationship.

English also lacks a neutral third person singular pronoun. Thus in the sentence “If anyone wants a hamburger ___ can have one,” we have a choice of using either the words “he” or “she” in which case we may be making an incorrect statement as to gender; or we can use the word “they” in which case “they” is seemingly not in agreement with its singular antecedent “anyone.” Saying “he or she” solves this problem but its usage is somewhat cumbersome.

Contrary to popular opinion, the generic “he” is not a long-established usage in the English language. It was not until the 18th century that this rule appeared in English grammar books and it was not until the 19th century that the rule became entrenched. In fact, in 1850 an Act of Parliament in England gave official sanction to this recently established concept of the generic “he.” Parliament ordained that “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.”

As language is primarily a tool to communicate, the generic “he” is clearly faulty because it provides false or misleading information about the sex of the referents. For example, if one says “Everyone on the choir raised his voice in song,” one is giving the impression that it is an all male ensemble.

Many languages avoid sex designation in pronouns by having a word such as the Turkish o which can refer to “he or “she.” Similarly in Finnish hän can refer to a man or a woman. In English, over eighty words have been suggested to cover this situation such as “te,” “ter,” “tem,” “hesh,” “co,” “shem,” and “thon,” but none of them has acquired much currency. In fact, when Webster's International Dictionary , Second Edition was published in 1934 the word “thon” was listed but when the Third Edition was released in 1962 this entry was not included because hardly anyone had used this new pronoun in the interim. Languages are resistant to accepting new words that are central to their grammar.

What to do? For me, the issue is clear. Pronoun envy aside, the intent of language is to communicate, and by using “he” or “his” we may be imparting incorrect or misleading information about the sex of the participants. John McWhorter, in The Word on the Street, says that “they” is “singular as well as plural for the simple reason that the language has changed and made it so. The idea that ‘they’ is only a plural pronoun is an illusion based on treating the English of one thousand years ago as if it was somehow hallowed, rather than just one arbitrary stage of an endless evolution over time.” After all, centuries ago a distinction was made between “thou and “you,” with the former referring to a second person singular pronoun and the latter to a second person plural pronoun, but by the 17th century “thou” fell into disuse in standard English.

I don’t expect everyone is going to agree with me on this issue. To each their own.

Howard's next book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in 2013.


(This article first appeared in the linguistic magazine Word Ways in a slightly different format).


It is common knowledge that man`s ability to communicate sets him apart from other creatures. Only recently, however, has it been discovered (much to the chagrin of L’Acadamie Française) that man has been using English palindromes throughout the aeons. A paleontologist has interpreted one of the oldest cave murals ever found to be saying, “Og,go!'” Civilization is replete with significant palindromic ejaculations. In chronological order, here are some of the noteworthy palindromic utterances.

Was it Ararat I saw? (On the 17th day of the 7th month of confinement with odorous beasts, Noah does a double take when the ark comes to a rest upon Mount Ararat; circa 3500 B.C.)

Sex, Rex Xerxes? (Attributed to an Athenian courtesan after the Persian king Xerxes led an invasion of Greece; 480 B.C.)

Splat! I await Alps. (A wary Hannibal lingers at the foothills of The Alps after one of his soldiers was crushed by an elephant; 218 B.C.)

Draw O Caesar, erase a coward! (Cicero`s advice to Caesar to launch a pre-emptive counterattack against Brutus goes unheeded; 44 B.C.)

Mary bred a derby ram. (To supplement Jacob’s meager carpenter’s income, Mary raises thoroughbred rams. The one named Shofar goes on to sweep the Triple Crown of sheep racing; 3 B.C.)

Lepers, alas, repel. (A leper begs Jesus to cure him so that he can meet a nice Jewish girl on J-Date. (27 A.D.)

Rise, sir. (Jesus commands Lazarus to come alive; 28 A.D.)

No! Rome, moron. (Attila chastises a hearing-challenged Hun who was heading to pillage Nome, Alaska; 452.)

Was it a rat I saw? (Attributed to the Pied Piper of Hamelin ; 1284.)

Hot, oh! (Joan of Arc is barbecued; 1431.)

Egad! A base tone denotes a bad age. (French astrologer Michel Nostradamus in

Centuries predicts the onslaught of oxymoronic hip-hop music; 1555.)

Sums are deified, Erasmus. (John Calvin decries society`s materialism to Desiderius Erasmus; 1563.)

Posh serf – a fresh sop. Referring to Oliver Cromwell, the last words spoken by Charles 1 at his 1649 execution.

Able was I ere I saw Elba. (A marooned Napoleon (known in palindromese as the "namable Elba man") raves in English  during his exile; 1821.)

X Ramses? - Order red roses, Marx! (Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx`s Communist Manifesto collaborator chastises Marx for acting like a sexist bourgeois pig; 1848.)

No in uneven union! (Jefferson Davis exhorts the South to secede from the Union; 1861.)

Are we not drawn onwards, we Jews, drawn onward to new era? Theodore Herzl tries to drum support for Zionism; 1897.)

A man, a plan, a canal- Panama. (Woodrow Wilson dedicates the opening of the Panama Canal to its` chief engineer, George Washington Goethals; 1914.)

Jar a tonga; nag not a raj. (Winston Churchill admonishes Mahatma Gandhi; 1942.)

Can I attain a C? (Dubya soliloquizes in his quest for mediocrity while attending Yale; 1967)

Nu, Nasser? Race - caress a nun. (Attributed to Golda Meir; 1969.)

Neil, an Alien! (Astronaut Buzz Aldrin mistakes his own shadow for a Moonman; 1969.)

Drat! Sadat a dastard. (Ariel Sharon expresses his distrust of Anwar Sadat during the Camp David negotiations; 1979.)

Di, did I as I said I did? (An absent-minded Prince Charles asks his wife, Princess Diana, if she remembers what he has just said; 1987.)

Egad! A Red loses older adage.(Ronald Reagan admits that Gorby seems to be a swell type of guy; 1988.)

Drat! Saddam a mad dastard. (The Emir of Kuwait, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah expresses his disgust at the chicanery of Saddam Hussein; 1990.)

Sex at noon taxes. (Attributed to Bill Clinton declining a midday service call from Monica; 1998.)

Now, I won. (George Bush is relieved after the Supreme Court rules that he has won Florida's 25 electoral votes and will thus become the 43rd President of the United States; 2000.)

No, it is open. I felt, Bush, subtle fine position. (Attributed to Vladmir Putin speaking to George W Bush. It is unclear whether Putin is referring to Russian society, or to Bush’s zipper; 2005.)

Imam am I. (Attributed to Muqtada al Sadr who in a clandestine meeting with Condoleeza Rice in Baghdad tells her that he should not be addressed as His Holiness; 2007.)

Tao mania in a moat. (Headline in the Rangoon Gazette tells up the mass drowning suicides of monks protesting the repression by the Burmese government; 2007,)

Sex? Obama boxes! (An aide to Barack Obama vigorously denies that his boss is having an affair and explains that Obama’s chief extra-curricular activities are b-ball and boxing; 2008.)

Not now! Foe Tibetan ate bite of won ton. (China’s President Hu Jintao is vexed when his spying on the Dalai Lama is disrupted; 2008.)

THE END (for now)
DNE EHT (won rof)

Monday, September 3, 2012

Yiddish Cursing Then & Now

Jewish Curses – Then & Now


Howard Richler

Verbal wit can serve as a safe outlet for repressed impulses, and if your aggression is likely to elicit retaliation, it is prudent that your slings and arrows be linguistic rather than physical. Cursing has proved to be a cathartic tool for oppressed minorities. This is borne out by the colourful curses to be found among chronically subjugated groups such as gypsies, African-Americans and, of course, Eastern European Jews.

The Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before WWII had no problems cursing creatively, as they enjoyed the advantage of speaking Yiddish, a tongue seemingly fashioned exclusively for the prickly barb.

Yiddish curses should not be confused with the Hebraic curses of the Bible. Hebrew curses were deadly serious whereas there is a humourous thrust to almost all Yiddish curses. Although most people associate cursing with malevolence, Yiddish ones can be downright jocular. This is because the Yiddish curser usually does not believe in the power of her/his execration. Yiddish cursing developed into a choreographed activity where satisfaction was gained by ejaculating an imaginative imprecation. Many of the ditties were improvised and were designed to exhibit the verbal nimbleness of the execrator. Yiddish curses lull you with their seeming innocence, then flatten you with the punch line. An example of this verbal feinting is “May you lose all your teeth except one-so you can have a tooth ache.”

This is not to say that ill will was never directed towards others in Yiddish curses. Shtetl life in Eastern Europe was onerous and interactions did not take place in idyllically bucolic settings with fiddlers prancing on rooftops. In this environment, an acerbic wit and a good delivery could earn one much respect A good example is, “May you fall into the outhouse just as a regiment of Cossacks finishes a prune stew and twelve barrels of beer!” But in cursing your neighbour or your competitor at the market, you could pretend that the object of your scorn was the Czar or some other oppressor.

Yiddish cursing was, by and large, the domain of women. The men enjoyed sanctuary in holy studies but Jewish women were not invited to club meetings and because men devoted most of their time to religious study, women became the family providers. The only profession open to her was work at the market and to release anxiety in this hectic workplace, it was necessary to learn to “curse like a market-woman.”

Henny Youngman mother-in-law jokes notwithstanding, in Yiddish culture, a mother-in-law was not the bane of a man, but of a woman who could be constantly besieged by her mother-in-law in the home or the market. Two examples of women’s disdain for mothers- in-law are, “May your mother-in-law treat you like her own daughter and move in with you!” and “May your husband`s father marry three times so that you have not one but three mothers-in-law!”

One would never merely say “Drop dead!” in Yiddish. The simplest way of expressing this aspiration was “Into the earth with you!” Since a child could only be named after a deceased, you could kill with kindness by saying “May they name a baby after you!” One's death wish could be couched in blessings, as in “May you have a sweet death and have a wagonload of sugar run over you” ; “May God bless you with a son so smart he learns the mourner's prayer before his Bar Mitzvah speech!” and “May you be spared the indignities of old age!”

Wishing disease or pain on someone was a popular theme, especially if the individual was wealthy. Benedictions took sudden u-turns and mutated into maledictions: “May he own ten shiploads of gold-and may all of it be spent on sickness.” One peculiar ill wish was “A cholera in your bones!” It must have been felt that bone cholera was more uncomfortable than the run-of-the-mill variety. Other ill wishes included, “All problems I have in my heart should go to his head,” “May you become famous-they should name a disease after you!” and "May your blood grow so healthy, your leeches' leeches need leeches!” Anorexia nervosa was not a common ailment, and a zaftig figure was a sign of affluence and a selling point for the local matchmaker. “May you never develop stomach trouble from too rich a diet” was definitely not a blessing but it sounds desirable next to “May you grow four stomachs like a cow, so that you get four times the bellyache and four times the heartburn.”

Alas, Yiddish is not widely spoken anymore but the spirit of these curses lives on at the website Here's a sampling :

May you sell everything and retire to Florida just as global warming makes it uninhabitable.

May your insurance decide constipation is a pre-existing condition.

May the state of Arizona expand their definition of “suspected illegal immigrants ” to “anyone who doesn't hunt .”

May you grow like an onion with your head in the ground and then may the ground be fracked.


Howard's book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published next Spring.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Facebook Quizzes-#75-#100

What do these series of words have in common?...

75-horseshoer, intestines, reappear, redder, teammate
76-abstemious, bacterious, facetious (aside from ending in –ious)

77-uncomplimentary, unnoticeable, subcontinental

78-cobalt, nickel, poodle

79-alcohol, algebra, magazine

80-bog, slogan, tor, Tory

81-beekeeper, dumbstruck, Mississippi, Tennessee
82-imitability, abominates, deliberate, verisimilitudes, rehabilitate

83-bungalow, guru, pajamas, pariah, thug

84-behemoth, cabal, jubilee, shibboleth

85-boss, cookie, smuggler, yacht



88-What couintry is an anagram to “prison age?”

89-Name a European city/town of at least 12 letters where no letter appears more than once.

90-Name a resident of a European country that is an anagram to a member of an Asian ethnic group.

91-Aside from Toronto name 3 Cdn cities whose letters only occur in the second half of the alphabet.

Find the people who are anagrams to..







98-canny older author

99-deign read

100-fine in torn jeans

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Greek Language Deserves a Medal

(A version of this article appeared in the Aug 10, 2012  Globe & Mail)

Our big fat Olympic Greek vocabulary
Howard Richler

Some of you may remember a line in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the character Gus Portokalos boasts to someone Say any word, and I'll tell you how the root of that word is Greek.
This assertion is challenged and Gus is asked to explain the Greek provenance of the obviously Japanese word “kimono.” Gus ponders for a second and replies Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ah! Kimono is come from the Greek word kimona, which is mean winter. What do you wear in the winter? A robe! So, there you go!

Gus’s chauvinistic bombast aside, it is nonetheless true that in all European languages (and even some non-European based languages) the vast majority of everyday vocabulary includes words of Greek origin. The arts and sciences were born, developed and are still operating with a basically pure Greek vocabulary featuring such words as idea, philosophy, democracy, magic, biology and telephone. While the Guses of the world may have some convoluted theory as to how words connected to Olympic events such as judo, tae kwan do and softball are Greek-based, not surprisingly we do see many Olympic related words that descend from the Greek language. The Olympics themselves are named after Olympia, an ancient religious site scared to the god Zeus which is also the place in Greece where the first Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C. “Athlete” and “athletics” themselves descend from the Greek word athlētēs, a derivation of athlein “to contend for a prize.”

In addition, one has to return to ancient Greece to understand the provenance of some Olympic events. The Greeks have been defying great odds in order to prevail way before they won the Euro Cup 2004. In 490 B.C, the heavily outnumbered Athenians defeated the invading Persians on the plains of Marathon, approximately 25 miles from Athens. Legend has it that the runner Pheidippides was chosen to carry the glad tidings back to Athens. Upon reaching the walls of the Acropolis, Pheidippides cried out. “Rejoice, we conquer!” – and promptly dropped dead; ever since, marathoner runners have contemplated giving up the ghost over this arduous distance. When the modern Olympics was inaugurated in Greece in 1896, the distance of the marathon was set at 40,000 metres (24.85 miles) which was the distance between the Marathon Bridge and the Olympic stadium in Athens Since the 1908 Olympic Games in London, the marathon distance has been set at 26 miles, 385 yards. This is because 26 miles represented the distance between Windsor Castle to White City Stadium, and 385 yards was added on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII's royal box.

In the unlikely event that you are asked to strip naked in a gym by a philologist – don't freak out. The word “gymnastics” descends from its Greek parent gumnazo which means “train naked” and comes from the word gumnós “naked.” In ancient Greece, exercises were often performed in the nude and at one point Olympic track meets were run in the buff because it was believed that the sun was soothing to the nerves of the back. While in practice sessions, the modern clad gymnast while in practice sessions, performs “calisthenics” vigorous exercises to improve muscle tone band fitness. This term blends the Greek stem kalli, “beauty” with the Greek word for strength, sthenos.

The Greek word for contest is athlon and this has bequeathed us four Olympic sports; the decathlon (ten events), the heptathlon (seven events), the triathlon (three events). The pentathlon in which contestants compete in shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and cross-country running has an interesting history. The choice of these sports was based on the legend of a warrior who, having to convey a message to the rear of the fighting forces, had to battle on horseback with his pistol and sword. However, because his horse was killed in the process, he had to swim and run to complete his mission.

Because so many languages borrowed from Greek, the Greek language doesn’t always receive the credit it deserves in etymological analysis. For example, “rhythmic gymnastics“ is actually doubly Greek in origin but for the etymology of “rhythm,” the OED mentions the Latin rhythmus and the French rhythme but neglects to mention that the word ultimately derives from the Greek rhytmós “recurring motion.” Similarly, while English acquired the word cycle from French which in turn changed the Latin word cyclus, this word in turn was an adaptation of the Greek kuklós, “circle.”

My next book From Happy to Homosexual and other mysterious semantic shifts will be published in 2013.