Friday, June 23, 2017


                           (This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of Lexpert)
                           Why mama and papa?
                                   Howard Richler
 Around the globe, May and June represents the most common months that honour mothers and fathers respectively. Surprisingly, the near universality of recognition for parents is almost matched by the similarity that many languages have for the two words.
In the 1950s, the American anthropologist George Murdoch studied the words for mother and father in 470 languages scattered throughout the planet. His analysis showed that the word for mother contained a syllable similar to ma in 52% of cases whereas the word for father contained this syllable in only 15% of the languages. Conversely, the word for father has a syllable akin to pa or ta in 55% of his language sample, while these syllables occurred in the word for mother in only 7% of cases.
What accounts for these staggering proclivities?
One theory proposed is called the “Proto-World Hypothesis” which posits that the similarity of words  for mother and father  in various languages can be explained by the words being present in the ancestral language of mankind  and that these words have simply survived in hundreds of languages in a similar form and with the exact same meaning.
But before we examine the veracity of this theory, let’s look at some of the parental words in various languages. Since Mother’s Day celebrations usually precede ones for Father’s Day and we have the entrenched expression “ladies first,” we will start with mother words.  Most languages seem to have a word for mother that is either “mama” or has a nasal sound similar to mama, such as “nana.” Observe, Arabic ahm, Basque ama, Bosnian majha, Chechen nana, Dutch moeder, Greek mana, Quechua and Romanian mama, Tagalog nanay, Urdu ammee and Welsh mam to name but a few.
On the paternal side of the equation we have Albanian, Mandarin and Turkish
baba, Greek babbas, Hindi and Russian, papa, Italian padre, Latvian tevs, Welsh
tad, and Xhosa tata.
Although what I previously referred to as the Proto-World Hypothesis sounds logical, it doen’t hold up to a close scrutiny or accord with scientific evidence which was extrapolated by pioneering Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson.  In Jakobson’s 1959 article  Why “mama” and papa”?  he explained that babies everywhere acquire language in a very orderly fashion. At first the vocalizations of a baby are done by crying or shrieking. After this, the infant moves to a cooing stage characterized by those distinct baby noises. In this period the young child is not making any recognizable speech sounds and is still in the pre-speak period. But it is during the next phase – the babbling stage that something significant occurs. Here we begin to hear recognizable speech sounds in the form of vowels and consonants. The easiest vowel sound for babies to utter is ah because it can be made without doing anything with the tongue or  lips.  Thus the “ah” sounds in “mahs” and “pahs.

Very often these speech sound s are repeated and the “mah” sound turns into
“mahmah.”  Of course the baby isn’t really speaking, it’s babbling, but it sounds
like speaking to adults and as if the baby is addressing someone who most likely is
the mother. Naturally, mom takes mama as meaning her, and when speaking to her
baby refers to herself as mama.
As anyone learning English as a second language knows, certain consonants are
very difficult to pronounce such as the th sound in the beginning of words such as
“the” and at the end of words like “south,” Even a three- year old child whose first
language is English might have a problem with this sound and their rendition of 
think might emerge as fink. On the other hand, some consonants are quite easy to
produce. These are the sounds that are made entirely with the lips such as m, p, or
b. These are easier because they require no tongue work; all that is required for
their production is placing the two lips together and releasing them. The m sound is 
easiest  of all and this explains why mama invariably precedes papa.

Papa is virtually ubiquitous for a similar reason. After babies begin making the m
sound with their lips, they’re likely to make a sound that involves slightly more
than just the putting of their lips together. This new sound involves not only the
putting of  the lips together, but  holding them in that position for a second or two
and then blowing out a puff of air. This invariably produces a p or a b sound.
Another possibility involves the slightly more complicated procedure in which the
baby plays with its mouth a little further back from the lips and this elicits  a  t or d
sound. The order in which babies acquire these sounds explains why the second-in-
command caretaker to mama is usually called papa, baba, tata, or dada.

A happy Mother’s Day and Father’s Day – even to those whose mother tongues
represent the rare languages whose words for parental figures diverge from this
Richler’s latest book Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in 2016

Saturday, June 10, 2017


Treading in the footsteps of David, Herod, Lawrence, Ralph, Harrison, Matt et al: Discovering the other-worldly Israeli and Jordanian Deserts
(Appeared in the June 2107 Senior Times titled Discovering the otherworldly Israeli and Jordanian Desert.)

At the beginning of this month, my partner Carol and me were waiting to board a bus in Eilat that would take us back to Jerusalem -our base for a six-week stay in Israel - when a couple noticed Howard’s Canadian hockey themed tee-shirt and struck up a conversation. As there are at most 3.5 degrees of separation in the Jewish community, we discovered that this couple lived on Marlowe in NDG, basically just down the road from us. As we enthusiastically shared details of our travels, they were surprised to hear that we were fresh off a trip into Jordan and specifically enquired as to how we were received and treated while there. Had we felt safe?

We had to take our seats and never found out whether their concerns were general or specific in nature. History has not always placed Jordanians and Israeli Jews “on the same side,” to say the least, and 2016 saw several troubling incidents in pro-Western Jordan that gave us pause for thought before venturing there. In November, three U.S. military personnel on a training mission were killed by a lone sniper and as late as mid-December, a retired Newfoundland teacher was killed in an incident involving four gunmen being chased down by Jordanian security forces. Nevertheless, the Canadian government’s travel advisory for Jordan was the same as that for Israel – “Exercise a high degree of caution (with regional advisories)” – at the time of our trip.

Not being totally laid back nay fearless, before we ventured into Jordan we did our due diligence and chose a private/small group tour with Desert Eco Tours, an Israeli company that several people recommended. Based in Eilat, they arranged everything we needed for our three-day trip from the door of our hosts’ home in Arnona, a suburb of Jerusalem, to that bus station in Eilat where we’d met the couple from NDG who were so anxious to know how we’d been treated in Jordan.

Zion, our guide for the first day of the tour, proved within minutes of collecting us in Arnona that we’d made a great choice. He was extremely friendly, putting us immediately at ease, and very knowledgeable, informing us of a myriad of facts regarding the neighbourhood we’d made our home for the last month even as he navigated Jerusalem’s alarming traffic to pick up the route to our first designated stop, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.

Thanks to Zion’s excellent planning, a pit-stop took us to Qumran National Park and a view of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Once at Ein Gedi, Zion made sure we were properly equipped (sunscreen on/heads covered/water bottles in hand) for the short hike to David’s Waterfall just one of the historically significant sites of this 5,000-year old oasis. An easy walk out of Wadi David gave us amazing views of the Dead Sea and Judean Desert. Then, it was on to Masada, the sprawling, elevated (we took the cable car) site of King Herod’s Palace and the mass suicide of the Jewish who made a last stand against Roman invaders. We ended our day’s adventures with the obligatory float in the Dead Sea. Throughout the day, Zion was able to answer any questions we threw at him while being a fun, relaxed guide to the Judean Desert’s wonders.

By sundown, Zion had driven us to the border and handed us over to another Desert Eco Tours representative at the Yitzhak Rabin Crossing; this rep gave us all the necessary paperwork and even instructions for traversing the no-man’s land to the Jordanian side. We have to admit that the eighty metres or so walk leaving Israel and entering Jordan was jarring compared to the easy companionship we’d enjoyed during the day. Still, happily, and maybe surprisingly, there were no reasons to be concerned and once our documents had been checked and our luggage cleared security we were in the capable hands of another of the tour group’s reps who whisked us off to our overnight hotel in Aqaba. The next morning, our Jordanian guide, Ali, collected us at our hotel for the second day of our tour – the ancient city of Petra.

Over two thousand years old and the site of several empires, Petra was a prosperous city on a lucrative trade route leaving its magnificent coloured rock ruins to today’s tourists. Each twist and turn in the route that leads through a soaring narrow gorge into the ancient settlement unveiled more “aahs” and “wows” as temples, burial monuments, tombs, cave dwellings, and even a theatre and market place all “rose-red” suddenly come into view. The thrills are not only static; vocal Bedouin selling souvenirs line the route through the ancient city and Arabian stallion horse riders, along with owners of donkey carts and camels tear past trying to persuade you to hop on! Perhaps their efforts are magnified by the fact that tourism, according to our guide, is drastically hit by concerns over safety even in this exceptional World Heritage Site, setting for the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Desert Eco Tours upgraded us to the impressive Petra Gate Hotel for our overnight stay which was tinged with drama as the wind howled alarmingly into the early hours. The weather didn’t prevent our guide from arriving on time to whisk us off on the climax of our trip – a one day jeep ride through Wadi Rum, the other-worldly desert inhabited by the Bedouin. No surprises around the next corner here, the sites were far from hidden as Ali expertly drove us through vast tracts of open land that seemed to have no discernible routes. As in Petra, the rich red hues of the rocks were startling, but the landforms that the elements had fashioned out of rock and sand were the real scene stealers.

In addition to the awe inspiring landscape, the Bedouin tea tent frequented by Matt Damon when shooting The Martian here was a welcome stop, although the young Bedouin man wasn’t able to tell us whether, like us, he favoured the sage/balsam or the intense mint tea. Increasingly restricted in their traditional nomadic lifestyle due to an alarming reduction in groundwater in Wadi Rum, Bedouins are turning to tourism and hosting film crews to make a living. Most people know that Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in this area, but parts of The English Patient, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Transformers and the next Star Wars? Quite the list!

To end our desert tour, Ali parked the jeep wandered off into nearby bush and emerged with an armful of branches from fig and acacia trees which survive in the desert thanks to their very deep roots. He proceeded to light a small fire and spread out a huge tablecloth on the ground where he knelt to expertly chop greens, herbs  and tomatoes from his garden into a salad that he seasoned with lemon and oil while chicken he’d marinated at home and brought along in a cooler was barbecuing over the flames. Easily one of the best al fresco meals we’ve had, and we had problem getting a table or in this instance a tablecloth.

The several hours it took to reach the border crossing back into Israel were soaked up in questions and comments on the day’s experience, with Ali chatting away and opening up about life as a tour guide in modern day Jordan. As on our previous crossing, a Desert Eco Tours representative was there to hand us our paperwork and guide us in crossing the no-man’s zone, with another rep waiting on the Israeli side to drive us to our overnight accommodation in Eilat. So the next day when our fellow travellers from NDG asked about how we’d been treated in Jordan, we had only positive experiences to share. Yes, there are risks and we’re glad we were in expert hands.  But unfortunately, there are risks in surprising parts of the world – the shooting in Ste Foy happened just before we left, not to mention the terrorist attacks that have beset Paris. Our advice is: now is a great time to visit these wonders of the world while the usual crowds are staying away.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Sports Talk

Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language.  By Colin McNairn. Friesen Press: 266 pages: $19.35 (Published in June 2017 SeniorTimes).

In 1994, I reviewed  Grand Slams, Hat Tricks & Alley-oops by Robert Hendrickson  in my Speaking  of Language Gazette column whose subject was the many sports terms that had been absorbed into our everyday vernacular.  So, when reading Colin McNairn’s recently released Sports Talk: How It Has Penetrated Our Everyday Language I was surprised, to find many new terms from the world of sports that in the last two decades that have further  penetrated and enriched our lexicon.

For example, McNairn relates that a “soccer mom” refers to “the stereotypical middle-class suburban mother with school -age children.”  Incidentally, this term was the American Dialect Society word of the year in 1995.  In colder climes, this lady can do double duty as a hockey mom. Another new term is “moneyball.” It  came into our lexicon as a result of Michael Lewis’ 2003 book  Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game that was turned into the 2011 film  Moneyball starring Brad Pitt. In baseball, this term refers strategies by managers that rely on a sophisticated analysis of player stats. Before long it was adopted  in business theory  to refer to an ongoing investigation of past performance by data analysis to help plan for the future.

Most books that are compendiums of words that fit into specific genres merely list terms in alphabetical order. What I enjoyed about McNairn’s book is that he analyzes terms in chapters dedicated to particular sports thus allowing  us to see patterns that explain why certain fields have a predilection for the metaphorical use of terms from particular sports. This came to mind on March 24th while watching CNN where a discussion occurred on the attempt to Republicans to reach an agreement on repealing and replacing Obamacare. Before a vote on this issue was scheduled to occur, one analyst stated that “going into the locker room at half-time the Republicans realized that they had placed no points on the board.” After the vote to repeal was cancelled due to the lack of support for the motion another commentator said, “they{the Republicans} punted.”  Sports Talk provides other examples that imply that politics is merely a slightly less violent version of football. For example, a “Hail Mary” pass in football is one with low probability of success and is therefore only attempted in dire circumstances, such as the last play of the game. So when Al Gore selected Joe Lieberman as his running mate in 2000, McNairn relates that language columnist William Safire quipped “Only in America can you turn to a Jew for your Hail Mary pass” because Lieberman had been one of the few Democrats to castigate Bill Clinton for his sexual peccadilloes. Also, McNairn points out, the football term “ground game” is oft used in politics and points out that many commentators attributed Obama’s  two electoral victories to a strong “ground game”  which McNairn describes  as “a strong local organization and systematic grass roots activity leading to direct contact with voters.”

But if football terms are the preferred vehicle to describe events in the political arena, baseball metaphor reign supreme in sexual domains. Some years ago I attended a lecture in Montreal by Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua in which he explained that national literatures exhibit particular motifs and that the crux of American literature is the pursuit of the American Dream— success ,and we see many terms in baseball that relate to success or failure in the sexual arena. McNairn relates that “a man who tries to… seduce  a woman runs the risk of “striking out” and that it’s worse if you strike out “swinging”  rather than “looking” (not swinging) because the former implies you gave it your best effort and still failed. And as in well-known, the base a man reaches highlights his level of success. First base= kissing,  second base= moderate fondling, third base=extreme fondling with the ultimate goal being of hitting a home run, i.e, scoring.  Still other baseball terms relate to sexual preference rather than success.  In baseball, a switch hitter is one who can bat from either side of the plate, in sexual terms this person is bisexual. Someone who “plays for the other team” is gay.

One minor quibble I have with Sports Talk, however is that if gives short shrift to two hockey terms that have penetrated political dialogue in Canada. Interestingly, both of the terms relate to evasion. For example in the 1990s , in an exchange in the British Columbia Legislative Assembly, Liberal member Rich Coleman said of NDP Minister Moe Sihota  that, “When the Minister was referring earlier to being a skier, he should have been a skater and learned how to skate around an issue rather than answer the question.”  Also in the 1990s, CNEWS stated that “Bernard Landry was performing a Bouchardian spinarama on the inevitable question about sovereignty referendum strategy.” A spinarama in hockey refers to an evasive 360 degree turn. On the other hand, I learned from Sports Talk, that “pulling the goalie” is an expression that describes “the action a couple takes in abandoning birth control with the hope of conceiving a child.”

All in all, Sports Talk is a must read for the intelligent sports fan.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit.

Monday, June 5, 2017



1701-Split Definitive Puzzle   little chess pieces    (10)  (w)     (a) These “split definitive” are now featured in my recently released book Wordplay:Arrangedand Deranged Wit in the chapter “Word Definitions.”The book is now available in bookstores like Barnes & Noble and online at Amazon

1702-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means short dance (in 2 senses & 2 pronunciations)   

1703-Discern the convergent words   man-ion-fight     jar-up-ice     brown-tier-butter

1704-Split Definitive Puzzle   car sex  (10)  (m)

1705-What do these words have in common?     lord-barn-lady

1706-Discern the convergent words  belt-wing-backs     kisser-wash-off       roll-over-call

1707-Split Definitive Puzzle act in an intentionally facetious manner  (7)   (d)     

1708-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means Asian group of mountains

1709-Discern the convergent words cake-peppermint-salmon     ice  onion-alphabet-nazi    ???

1710-Split Definitive Puzzle  fuss  allowance    (a)   (9)   

1711-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means change alarm

1712-Discern the convergent words  app-end-nest     pig-blue-gay  up-king-conversation

1713-Split Definitive Puzzle long speech guaranteed to put you to sleep    (11)   (r )   

1714-What do these words have in common?     beat-bosom-scald-spurs 

1715-Discern the convergent words   sand-electric-boat     rug-line-ion   app-rep-motel

1716-Split Definitive Puzzle water barrier land (9)    (d)

1717-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means besmirch paragon

1718-Discern the convergent words   potato-blue-pea     ballet-glass-house      sissy-dress-cargo

1719- Split Definitive Puzzle criticize flower (8)    (a) These “split definitive” are now featured in my recently released book Wordplay:Arrangedand Deranged Wit in the chapter “Word Definitions.”The book is now available in bookstores like Barnes & Noble and online at Amazon

1720-What do these words have in common?     pedigree-halcyon-Alcatraz

1721-Discern the convergent words   my-shell-or   gate-parlor-delivery    color-open-boy

1722-Split Definitive Puzzle     rocky peak guide  (9) (t) 

1723-What do these words have in common?     corgi-penguin-Tory  

1724-Discern the convergent words   jack-fully-fly      tree-tray-set      bread-breath-butter 

1725-Split Definitive Puzzle ankle bones prohibition (7) (b)

1726-Aside from starting with B what do these words have in common?  boredom-blatant-bisexual-bicentennial-blurb

1727-Discern the convergent words   pin-brown-blue   about-recognition-warrior      oil-tight-game

1728-Split Definitive Puzzle limit talent  (10) ( c)

1729-What do these 4 letter words have in common?      fuck-golf-posh      

1730-Discern the convergent words   session-run-raging    fire-flying-desert     alley-arms-pear

1731-Split Definitive Puzzle dined on cheese   (7)    (b)

1732-What do these words have in common?     assassination-arouse-amazement

1733-Discern the convergent words     brush-way-country    formation-country-authorize 


1734-Split Definitive Puzzle     female mined mineral  (6)    (g)

1735-What do these words have in common?     indicted-manger-pizza  

1736-Discern the convergent words  bar-john-land    monkey-egg-flat    horse-black-tree

1737-Split Definitive Puzzle       male demon brew  (6)  (i)

1738-What do these words have in common?     bagel-cabbage-falafel

1739-Discern the convergent words h eld-helping-out   wandering-watering-catching     twister-supply-dis

1740-Split Definitive Puzzle 5 cent  heart (12)   (p)

1741-What do these words have in common?     semolina-hominal-Germany

1742-Discern the convergent words brass-black-baseball   clown-knee-snow  conveyer-hit-snow

1743-Split Definitive Puzzle  fender-bender   (7)  (d)

1744-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that means maritime affliction 

1745-Discern the convergent words wood-hole-carrier   bane-attack-pile   blue-night-speckled    

1746-Split Definitive Puzzle one side of the story   (8)  (v)

1747-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that refers to when a son of bee mates with his sister

1748-Discern  stuck-skin-fish   road-heaven-town       night-horn-nation

1749-Split Def    record ended     (8)   (o)

1750-Anagram-  every pain

1751-Discern    Baltimore-night-grey   cut-coat-parlor     wild-net-hole

1752-Split Def  study of German cars  (9)   (o)

1753-Anagram    Semitic expert coffee preparer

1754-Discern     cheese-knife-pepper    able-Irish-beef     ale-butter-hop

1755-Split Def    harbor parchment    (9)    (f)

1756-Anagram  hopeful supporter

1757-Discern coal-clock-book      race-tender-speed   sweat-lymph-en

1758-Split Def  pig draw  (6)  (t)   

1759-Anagram  meaner eye parts

1760-Discern   butter-pie-wood     black-palm-tea   black-horse-oil  

1761-Split Def    implore   (7)    (l)  

1762-Anagram     harsh leases

1763-Discern   snap-coat-cock     bitter-butter-chicken      maker-cake-break

1764-Split Def   guys score (8)    (t)

1765-Anagram  extra weapon 

1766-Discern    fiddle-on-stage    cold-sample-relations   black-man-office

1767-Split Def   bury condition  (10)  (s)  

1768-What do these words have in common?   ascertains-Presbyterians-waterfalls

1769-Discern       pea-peg-sugar    cow-land-betting    bath-dis-ward

1770- Split Def     piscatorial  (6)   (o)

1771-What do these words have in common?   palm-posses-proper

1772-Discern   south-past-disc   cocktail-boat-tiger  complain-car-way

1773-Split Def   negatively universal donor ward    (5)   (o)

1774-What do these words have in common?   moose-deer-tick   

1775-Discern  apple-potato-rice      basket-electric-spiny   ribbon-store-girl

1776-Split Def   urination fury  (7)   (r)

1777-Name a palindromic phrase that could describe astronaut headwear

1778-Discern   bob-boy-bobble       child-hacking-pea      backs-out-whip    

1779- Split Def   popular poem (7)  (i)

1780-Name a palindromic phrase that could mean disgorge cotton swabs 

1781-Discern Jerk-resistant-works      road-works-old         wars-atlantic-ability

1782-Split Def   average nonsense  (7)   (p)

1783-Name a palindromic phrase that describes a cosmopolitan streetcar  

1784-Discern   snow-complain-by      Asian-complain-us   do-sage-house

1785-Split Def   what the resident of a doghouse might have to pay (7)   (  r )

1786-Anagram  bemoaning calibration

1787-Discern   fat-pork-yellow      check-less-instinct      clock-about-off

1788- Split Def   at the present time at this place (7)  (h)

1789-Anagram Piscatorial relative

1790-Discern   boiler-law-lounge   pocket-down-ski     rack-soft-tongue

1791- Split Def   average connections (7)  (t)

1792- What do Tillerson, Sessions  & Rosenstein have in common?

1793--Discern   feed-man-a        marks-ace-some    ache-flat-tuck   

1794- Split Def   record played until 3PM   (12)   (l)

1795-Anagram   keeps triglyceride

1796-Discern   bunch-balls-bling    rain-rape-up          mud-mug-break

1797- Split Def   car pal   (8)  (m)   

1798- Anagram  shows some

1799-Discern   seat-split-palm    bag-counter-town   chart-hip-pot

1800-Split Def   informal links (10)   (c)