Silly Sayings


March 8, 2012

We all have words or phrases we use that we know are superfluous, ones that add nothing to what we’re saying, that annoy us when we hear them too often (especially from others).

Mine is “going forward.” Life was grand when it was confined to the boardroom, but it’s the kind of mindless phrase that’s crept into the workplace, the streets, pubs, even coffee lineups.

It’s become so ubiquitous it’s been called the adult version of “like.”

My main quibble is that the phrase simply isn’t needed. It’s redundant.

For example: “our strategy going forward.” What is a strategy if not forward-looking? Would you ever say “going backward?” (You’d probably want out of that situation pretty fast).

What’s more, it’s often randomly tacked onto ends of sentences, as in: “Let’s talk about that tomorrow, going forward.”

The folks at the Institution of Silly & Meaningless Sayings in the U.K. grew so peeved at the phrase that they created the Going-forward-ometer to monitor its use in the hope of expunging it from the English language. But they gave up in frustration.

The value of redundancy

Alas, “going forward” is just one of many redundant words sprinkled throughout our speech.

Think about them: (advance) warning, (ir)regardless, (final) conclusion, (new) innovation, (unexpected) surprise — as opposed to one of those expected surprises. And everyone’s favourite: “at the end of the day.”

Then there’s “the first time ever,” as in the United States’ soccer victory over Italy last month. Although, come to think of it, I can see why you’d want to draw that one out as long as possible.

Not so acceptable is “the reason why,” a furiously debated redundancy that critics say amounts to saying reason twice.

Indeed, people can get really worked up about those needless, niggling words. And yet, we use them all the time. Why?

Well, it could be because “redundancy isn’t inherently bad,” says Gabe Doyle, a PhD student in linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, who has given considerable thought to the subject.

“Where we get annoyed is when language is redundant and awkward, redundant and confusing, redundant and long,” he says, throwing in the example of the good old Department of Redundancy Department.

But Doyle does make a convincing argument why redundancy is an essential part of language.

Your PIN number

One reason is that the excess words can stress a point: “This idea, for all intents and purposes, will save us from bankruptcy.”

Here, the words have what is called a paralinguistic meaning: they’re not meant to be literal, but rather conversational.

Redundant words can also clarify. Saying pre-recorded emphasizes something was recorded before the current taping, just as “surrounded on all sides” explains there is no way out. With free gift, well, it’s the “free” that gets people running!

And chew on this sentence: “The coach smiled at the player tossed the Frisbee.”

All the essential words are there but it’s hard to understand the meaning until you add two more words. “The coach smiled at the player who was tossed the Frisbee.”

(The phrasing probably also marks the difference between spoken and written English. If you say the sentence with the right intonation, it’s completely understandable.)

In addition, redundant words can add weight. We tend to say ATM machine, even though the “M” already stands for machine. The same for other acronyms, like PIN.

“PIN doesn’t have that much weight to it, it’s a single syllable so it’s not necessarily going to be stressed,” Doyle says. “When you say PIN number, you’re getting that extra weight.

“If somebody says ‘Can I have your PIN number?’ then that makes sure that PIN gets enunciated better — you hear number, you have additional information.”

The noisy channel

So don’t be afraid to say the GOP party, the SAT test and 8 a.m. in the morning. You never know when people need that extra clarification.

Doyle says our need for repetition can be explained using the “noisy channel model.”

“The idea of a noisy channel model is that you have somebody who’s speaking, and somebody who’s listening,” says Doyle. “But in between the person speaking and listening, there’s a bunch of noise — whether it’s from the environment or the listener being distracted or whatever could be causing this.”

“And so redundant information helps you overcome that noise and helps you make sure that what you really intended to say gets through to your listener.”

It reminds me of what my mom has always said: Repeat things three times if you want people to remember what you say.

Doyle says it’s hard to predict, but we could see more verbal redundancy in the future as the way we communicate changes, and we get more noise in our daily lives.

Like when you’re on your cellphone in a car and the connection is fuzzy, or out on a loud, busy street, shouting above the hissing busses and the other cellphone users shouting their own conversations.

In those situations, you tend to repeat words, saying them again and then maybe again, just to be sure. And you avoid complex words like quandary, and just say problem.

But it’s not like we’d be problem-free without redundancies. Imagine a world where we all spoke in text messages. Stripped down to essential words, texts can be simple and clear. But as we all know, they can also be easily misunderstood.

So it seems that it can be helpful to use redundant words, just not the ones that somehow mushroom into mindless buzzwords, going forward.

Listen here:

The Great Typo Hunt


Feb. 6, 2012

Amazingly, in this abbreviated, punctuation-challenged, acronym-littered world, some spelling mistakes — especially in public spaces — still get people riled up enough to want to fix them.

Take Jeff Deck, a writer and copy editor. “A sign in my neighbourhood [‘No Tresspassing’] had a typo in it,” he says.

“And I realized that I had always been noticing typos, had a peculiar radar for them, and that I could actually do something about it.”

So he and his friend Benjamin Herson grabbed some markers, chalk and correction fluid and scoured the U.S. to find and correct as many typos as they could.

Then they wrote about it in their recent book, The Great Typo Hunt.

The authors focussed on mistakes made by native speakers of English, on signs in public view.

For instance, the sign at the Space Needle in Seattle brags how the building is Seattle’s “crowing” glory. Oops. Eating crow, indeed, over a missing “n”.

Aside from the addition or deletion of the rampantly misused apostrophe, the authors found all manner of misspellings.

For instance: restuarant and restarant, hellicopter (which promises a rather hellish ride), Thrusday and meterological missing the first “o”. That one was engraved into a sign at a federal courthouse, victim to the age-old struggle with vowels and double letters.

Typo corrector Jeff Deck. 

Beefstake tomatoes and sweet papyas were found lurking in grocery stores. The proud Milwuakee Furniture people unfortunately misspelled their own namesake, and the Dream Jamb Band was clearly waiting for its own jamboree.

You also have to wonder how successful this sign could be: Lonley? You got a friend in booze. And let’s not forget the misspellings pregnacy test and Atlanta souviner — on the same sign, no less.

Overall, the guys found more than 400 typos, and were able to correct about half of them.

Lost revenue

Why bother, you might ask? It’s not like these mistakes are causing traffic jams or riots.

“In a lot of cases, typos will actually not interfere with whatever someone is trying to communicate, but there’s still damage being done,” says Deck.

“Whether it’s fair or not, when people see mistakes in signs, they’ll automatically make assumptions about the amount of care the person who created the sign puts into their products, and the level of education someone has. It can have kind of a ripple effect.”

Deck says that is especially the case with small, independent businesses that don’t have the editorial resources of a large corporation.

One analysis last year claimed that poor spelling is costing Britain’s internet businesses millions of pounds in lost revenue, and that a single spelling mistake can cut online sales in half. People just click off the website.

I thought that analysis might be overstating things until I came upon an online profile, written by someone I’ve done business with for a while. The spelling was atrocious.

It flummoxed me because she’s such an articulate woman. But as I read, I could hear the click, click, click as my impression dropped a few notches. I didn’t want it to — it just happened.

Whole language

Maxine Ruvinsky says spelling errors also hurt the credibility of newspapers and books. She’s the author of Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource and teaches journalism at Thompson Rivers University in B.C.

There are all kinds of reasons why. Newspapers are outsourcing editing or having copy editors do more than just detect errors.

Then there’s the fact that we rely so much now on spell-check, which automatically corrects our documents and makes us a little less fastidious.

When you think about it, we’re actually rewarded for spelling incorrectly. Ever notice when you Google a word that’s misspelled (like Caribbean), it’s automatically corrected?

Ruvinsky, though, says we’re still living with the effects of the whole language movement, which teaches students to look at the whole word for meaning, rather than breaking it down into its components, a system that puts more attention on spelling.

She also says we can get young people to care more about spelling simply by getting them to write more.

“The best research says that when students are engaged in the topic, when they write about what they care about, they will make fewer errors of all kinds, grammatical and spelling, simply because they’re engaged.”

How to fix mistakes

For now, when you see a mistake on a sign, menu or other public space, should you fix it?

The 'crowing' glory of the Seattle Space Needle. Not something you can fix with a felt marker.

Typo Hunter Jeff Deck says it’s OK to want to correct something, but don’t just scrawl on every sign or poster that has something amiss. Go to the source. That way, you can prevent future mistakes.

And avoid making it personal — use the passive voice. Say: “I noticed there was a mistake in this sign,” instead of “I noticed you made a mistake in this sign.”

That strategy helped Deck in a popular tourist area in South Carolina. He noted that the word sweatshirts had been abbreviated to “sweats” with an extra “t”. So he went in and asked to fix it.

“The guy inside said ‘well, I can take care of it, but you’re going to have to hold the ladder.’ So I held the ladder,” says Deck. “I think sometimes even if you can just have a support role in helping people fix their spelling and grammar mistakes, it can be empowering.”

As for fixing a Twitter typo, well, many argue there are no spelling rules in the Wild West of social media.

But that may depend a bit on who you are and what message you’re trying to get across.

When Treasury Board President Tony Clement recently used the word “tonite” in a tweet, a teenager tweeted back that if he can’t spell properly, how can he run a government department?

The minister may have just been trying to be social and tweety, but it would seem that if you make a high-profile spelling slip, you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

Listen here:

The Secret to Learning Languages


Jan. 3, 2012

On a trip to Costa Rica, I marvelled at how a fellow traveller could flip so easily between languages. She would go from English to Italian with her friend, to French with someone else.

And then she picked up Spanish. Just picked it up as if it were an empanada at a street stall.

But this woman’s prowess still can’t compare to someone like Alexander Arguelles, an American polyglot who averages about nine hours a day studying dozens of languages.

A typical daily regime: writing and reading in Arabic, then writing at least two pages each of Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Latin, followed by reading Persian and writing two pages of Russian grammar before composing in Latin, doing grammatical exercises in Turkish, trying out a bit of Swahili, and reviewing Irish conversational dialogues.

When he goes running, it’s a different “story.” Literally. He hooks up his headphones and simply listens to an audio book in a foreign language, to exercise his brain as well as his legs.


Arguelles is featured in a new book by writer Michael Erard called Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.

The ability to listen. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a conference in Berlin.  

The brightest of these super-learners is the 19th century Italian cardinal Joseph Mezzofanti, believed to have spoken 72 languages!

Legend has it that Mezzofanti picked up Ukrainian in two weeks, and that he learned the language of two prisoners overnight so he could hear their confessions and grant them forgiveness before they went to the gallows.

While that’s obviously not normal, Erard says that polyglots and hyperpolyglots (people who speak more than six languages) can teach us something.

“The hyperpolyglots are people who have learned how they learn,” says Erard. “They know their cognitive style, they know the strategies that work better for them, they know their environment, and the resources they have access to.”

The challenge for the rest of us is figuring out how we learn languages best.

You may spend years working on Spanish grammar exercises only to find you can barely stitch together a sentence, and that a conversation is a match of linguistic tennis you’re watching from the sidelines.

The way I learned French in school was completely ineffectual: the same grammar rules year after year, marginal increase in vocabulary and minimal dialogue, and unhelpfully taught in English. By the time I finished high school, all I could really do was ask where the train station is.

It took a year in France (and a lot of train travel) for me to become fluent.

Meanwhile, a few years later, a rigorous diet of German every morning, where I was taught in German and repeated everything I heard, had me speaking the language somewhat fluently within three months.

I thought there must be a way of recreating this rapid language learning back at home.

Turns out there is.


Some polyglots, as well as Erard who is not but writes about language, recommend a method called “shadowing.”

Erard says that when he tried this technique with Hindi one afternoon, “the heavens opened” and that he can still remember the Hindi words he learned that day.

The method is simple: go outside, put on headphones and play a bit of the language you’re trying to learn.

Then walk briskly, staying upright and, in a loud, clear voice, try to repeat what you hear, simultaneously. Hear, repeat, hear, repeat and march around.

Odd, yes, but effective.

Erard says shadowing has a number of things going for it. It gets you used to people looking at you when you’re doing something new, so it reduces the embarrassment factor.

It also hooks up kinetics to the language, so it engages those gross motor skills and makes you less focused on what’s going on with your mouth and tongue. Plus it exercises your working memory, which is key to learning a foreign language.

Another key is making the experience enjoyable.

To acquire any language, you need to repeat words and phrases often, so repeat things you like. When we do something pleasurable, dopamine is released in the brain and that makes us want to do it again.

Et voilà

The underlying element to this, though, is to try to figure out something about your own style of learning. Is it easier for you to remember written material? Or is audio or video more effective?

Figuring out your neurology — how your brain is wired — can also help you learn a foreign tongue.

Erard says tests such as the Modern Language Aptitude Test can help determine your strengths and weaknesses by assessing your memory recall, executive (organizational) functions and ability to discriminate among sounds.

It can also measure the strength of your phonological loop — the ability to keep a string of spoken sounds in your brain while you figure out how to pronounce them.

Of course, these tests don’t measure motivation or commitment or the cultural aspects of language learning, but they can give you valuable knowledge.

For instance, if the test shows your working memory isn’t strong, you could do memory exercises while you learn Spanish grammar and vocabulary. And ya está! Before you know it you will be booking a trip with an off-the-beaten-track tour agency in Guatemala.

A test could also reveal that you are the type that tends to reach an intermediate level in a language, but then plateaus.

If that’s the case, you can reset your goal: you won’t be an ambassador, but you’ll be able to travel with ease, or watch TV and read a magazine in that other language. It’s a good reminder to be patient when people here speak English with a heavy accent or incorrect grammar. They may have been trying to improve for years, and they’ve simply plateaued.

We all have different language learning abilities; we just need to figure out what each of ours is.

When it comes to picking up new languages, we’re not all hot tamales.

The slinky, seductive sound of brand names


Dec. 2, 2011

The name Mazda zips off the tongue, especially if you add that zoom zoom bit. Rolex rolls. Ferrero Rocher melts. Nokia clicks. And L’Oreal somehow makes you feel that you’re worth it.

Let’s face it: some names just work. And companies are knocking themselves out to get just the right one because big names that people connect with can translate into big bucks.

One company in particular is leading the charge, and it has a secret weapon: Linguistics.

Will Leben is the director of linguistics for Lexicon, a firm that’s created billion-dollar brand names such as BlackBerry, Dasani, Pentium and Swiffer.

Leben knows of what he speaks. He studied under the famed Noam Chomsky and taught linguistics at Stanford University for 35 years.

His view is that how a name sounds can determine its success in the marketplace.

Slinky sounds

“There were signs from past research that certain sounds convey certain meanings,” Leben says.

The shiny bull's horns are fine but linguists would say it is the zoom zoom that makes Mazda move. 

In the linguistic world, that’s called sound symbolism. And to discover which sounds convey which meanings, Lexicon has done two big studies.

The company’s Sounder I study in 1995 tested objective qualities such as how fast or luxurious a word sounds.

What it found was that consonants made with the tip of the tongue, like t, tend to make names sound faster. Think of Toyota, Total, Toshiba.

Sounds like p and b, made with more massive articulators — the lips and back of the tongue — are deemed more luxurious.

No surprise then the names Burberry and Porsche practically slink out of your mouth.

That’s because “voicing is the vibration of the vocal chords while the sound is being made,” Leben explains. “Voicing weighs down a sound. If a sound is voiced, it’s more likely to sound heavy. If it sounds heavy, it’s more likely to sound luxurious.”

He says that when Lexicon named Dasani, they started with “san” for sanitation. Then they added a D, which sounds relaxed because it’s voiced. Tasani wouldn’t have been the same.

Some sad words

In their follow-up Sounder II study in 2001, Lexicon linguists tested emotional qualities to try to determine whether words sounded alive, daring, sad or insecure.

One of the questions was: Which sounds more alive, Sekka or Zekka? (Which do you think?) Zekka was the winner.

They found that sounds like k, b and z were deemed more alive and daring. And the noisier the better! And that r, l and n sounds were smoother and mellower, even sadder.

So now it makes sense why Mazda zooms, Rolex rolls and L’Oreal makes you want to curl up on a white sofa and eat bonbons all afternoon.

Repetitive sounding names can also pack a punch. A University of Alberta-led study last year found that names such as Kit Kat, Coca-Cola and Lululemon have a positive effect on consumers.

Names that use haplology can work too. That’s when a word is contracted by omitting one or more similar sounds or syllables, as in Toys “R” Us or Crunch ‘n Munch.

An added punch can be had from names that rhyme, contain alliteration or onomatopoeia.

Name Changes

All this to say that a bit of linguistics knowledge can make for a successful name.

What's in a name? Lady Gaga accepting a Bambi media award in Germany in November 2011.

It can also explain why companies bother to switch from one name to another. The folks at Google clearly made the right choice ditching their original name, BackRub (yikes!).

But of course some companies get it wrong, like when Blackwater converted to Xe (did anyone think about the pronunciation factor?); or when Andersen Consulting became Accenture (“accent on future” which just sounds like a fake word created by a bunch of managers); or when Comcast became Xfinity, criticized for sounding like a porn company.

Actors, singers and sports stars have long known the importance of creating a zippy name, but it’s more hip than ever now to create your “brand.”

For example, the bubbly-sounding Lady Gaga (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), the rebellious K-Os (Kheaven Brereton), down-home Shania Twain (Eilleen Regina Edwards), upscale Portia DeRossi (Mandy Rogers) and feisty Tiger (Eldrick) Woods. Hmm, maybe nix the last one.

I’ve dabbled with a name change myself. My running friends used to call me the rather jaunty-sounding C.Ro because I share J.Lo’s birthday. But it never really caught on.

Next frontier

Needless to say, many people feel a brand name itself is much less important than the marketing that surrounds it. Microsoft and IBM have done pretty well despite their blandness.

But tell that to the folks at Lexicon. They have a 77-member geo-linguistics team spread around the world that covers 53 languages. They’ve been busy researching how English names are perceived in foreign markets.

Now they’re onto the next frontier: researching how foreign brand names are perceived in an English market.

When you hear Chanel, you think French, seductive and ooh-la-la. It adds to the cache of the brand.

But what about the Chinese car Sunny? A pleasant name to be sure. But would you buy a car that sounds more like a weather report than a lean, mean machine?

And how do people feel about the Filipino fast-food chain Jollibee and the Korean Hankook tires, which are making inroads in the West.

In our globalized world, it’s more important than ever to have a name that not only connects with people, but translates across borders.

Linguistics may be the not-so-secret weapon that can give you that edge.

Listen here:

Technology is turning us into fast talkers

Oct. 31, 2011

From Strombo to Jon Stewart, let’s agree that some broadcast hosts can talk at the speed of lightning. They’re smart and satirical even if they do sometimes trip over their own brilliance.

Indeed, the media are full of fast talkers from talk shows to sitcoms and newscasts.

But it’s not just media types who motor along.

Texts, tweets, and technological gizmos are making communication ever faster and it’s causing many of us to speak more quickly in our everyday lives to keep up with it all.

Ray Hull is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Wichita State University in Kansas and he has done considerable research in the area of human neuroscience and speech.

“A decade ago,” he says, “I measured the speed of speech of teachers, family members and those out in society at a rate of about 145 words per minute, the average rate of human speech.

“That is certainly not what we’re finding today. People are speaking at a rate of typically 160 to 180 wpm, as I have measured it.”

Too fast for our brains

Some of us, of course, like to speak trippingly on the tongue to show that we’re smart and funny. But fast talking is also a result of our overwhelmed brains trying to cram more into the same amount of time. For broadcasters – more news; parents – more activities; teachers – more information.

CBC TV and radio host George Stroumboulopoulos, a fast talker. 

Hull’s mission is to slow the world down, one person at a time. Teachers, broadcasters, doctors, lawyers, even parents, they all come to him to learn to speak more deliberately and with greater clarity.

Hull is particularly concerned with elementary school teachers. He recently conducted a workshop for teachers in a large school district in Kansas. And last July, he spoke to teachers, professors and administrators at a meeting held by the U.S. Department of Education.

He says that he’s measured elementary school teachers in the classroom speaking at 180 words per minute. At that rate, he says, “those children simply cannot comprehend what is being said. Their central nervous system is not designed to do that.”

Hull says the human brain is best able to comprehend speech at around 124 to 130 wpm; when we speak slowly, our brains have the time to fill in the gaps of speech with elongated vowels and consonants.

The 30s slowdown

Now, perhaps you already speak at the Mr. Rogers rate of 130 wpm. Fantastic. Or you may speak quickly and be perfectly understandable. Carry on, I say.

Mr. Rogers, a slow talker. 

But others (our foreign minister, for example) can end up clipping word endings, slurring words together or eliminating pauses. End result? Sometimes we understand only half of what’s being said.

So when teachers or parents think that kids don’t listen, it may be more that they don’t understand what’s being said.

It isn’t just the speed of words that’s the problem. A recent study showed that fast-speaking and fast-moving cartoons negatively affect children’s “executive function,” meaning their ability to stay on task without being distracted.

It found that four-year-olds who sat down and watched just nine minutes of SpongeBob SquarePants had lower concentration levels than other kids their age.

So while fast-speak may be fun, it’s also fraught.

Seniors also can have a hard time with people who speak quickly, especially on the phone. And who doesn’t get frustrated with phonemessagesthatruntogether?

Hull says that when we hit our mid-30s, our central nervous system slows and we’re less able to understand people who talk quickly. By around 73, we have the listening abilities of a three-year-old.

Slow down

Hull says we all need to advocate for slower speech.

That may be especially true for those of us who live amid a growing population of new immigrants. Heck, if native speakers can’t keep up, then people with a lesser grasp on English must get really muddled by the motor mouths.

Hull has worked with television newscasters who he has timed speaking at 200 wpm.

“People call in and complain that they cannot understand what that news broadcaster is saying and that’s why that news broadcaster is referred to me.”

You’d think, he says, “that people would begin to take the hint that they… need…to…slow… down.”

There are a few ways to do that. Communications experts suggest looking people in the eye to get feedback, and pause between phrases.

[Pause inserted here.]

You can also time yourself. Mark 130 words on a page and clock how fast you read it out loud. If you’re done in less than a minute, try slowing down and see what that feels like.

Then again, I clocked myself at 170 wpm, and I’m often told how clearly I speak. So it may depend on how well you enunciate your words.

Instead of sighing dramatically, throwing up your hands and saying “nobody understands me,” do your bit to help people understand you.


Listen here:

Java jargon: Coffee lovers take lessons from wine snobs


Sept. 15, 2011

You’ve been there, sitting in a restaurant beside some tweed jacket type who swills his glass of red through tobacco-stained teeth and expounds on the delicate notes of currants and figs, the slight eucalyptus aftertaste. Or perhaps the young professional, giant sunglasses perched on immaculate updo, droning about the complexity of the white, what with its blend of vanilla and lemon, its slight taste of cotton sheets.

Really? Who tastes their sheets?

Let’s face it, wine snobs are annoying — what with the way they crowbar ordinary words to describe something many of us just slug back and quietly enjoy.

Well, now there’s a new snob on the block. With the growing interest in purity, body and single-origin, this drinking dialect is expanding to a different beverage.


Coffee, it seems, is the new wine.

It was inevitable. Most accounts plant the origin of the word “coffee” in the 1600s. It stems from the Turkish word kahveh and the Arabic word qahwah, which originally meant –– wait for it –– wine.

History professor Ralph S. Hattox explains the etymology in his book Coffee and Coffeehouses: The Origins of a Social Beverage in the Medieval Near East:

“The Arabic root q-h-w/y denotes the idea of making something repugnant, or lessening one’s desire for something,” he writes.

“According to one medieval Arab lexicographer, qahwa is ‘wine, so named because it puts the drinker off his food; that is to say, it removes his appetite [for it].’ The application of this term to coffee was a simple step: just as wine removes one’s desire for food, so coffee removes one’s desire for sleep.”

‘Pure coffee’

So, with coffee linguistically linked to wine, it makes sense that we’re now using similar language to describe it.

With a disdain for foam, the caffeinated wine snob is embracing “pure coffee,” mimicking the move from table wine to Cabernet, if you will. A quick trip to a few pure-coffee blogs yields the following: “the coffee held notes of fig, chocolate milk, a bit of wheat, black bean and bran. The overall feel was smooth with a little kick. As it cooled, a smokiness entered the sensory picture.”

And, “the espresso held bright lemon, ginger, rosemary, milk chocolate, with a velvety texture amidst a brown healthy crema.”

That all sounds quite nice, but I’ve never detected rosemary in my espresso. Then again, the two packets of sugar eliminate the need for all but one adjective: “sweet.”

Coffee connoisseurs talk more about single-origin or single-estate coffee, made with beans from one country or one farm. So, instead of Bordeaux and Gray Monk Riesling, you have Costa Rican Tarrazu and Panama Geisha Aristar.

And what of body? Like wine, java has body, and it’s being increasingly sized up (better assessed if you swirl it in your mouth). We yak about Brazilian and Honduran coffee having light and medium body, of Tanzanian beans being full-bodied.

So, why is java jargon becoming more refined?

Chocolate, salt also have own vocabulary

Morton Satin says people are trying to express their individuality through the products they consume. He’s the author of Coffee Talk: The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew and vice-president of the Salt Institute, a trade association for salt producers. Satin says it starts with marketers making us want to buy a product like coffee or wine and is driven by the likes of the Food Channel.

Once we taste a product and learn more about its nuances, we then need the language to describe it.

Satin says what’s happened with oenological language is spreading to not only coffee but chocolate, too. The brown stuff is described in terms of how well-tempered it is (whether it has a good gloss and healthy snap); its aroma (released by rubbing the chocolate with your thumb), which can range from kumquat and mushroom to juniper and baked bread; and how it melts in your mouth: creamy or greasy, or perhaps waxy and gritty. Like wine and coffee, more attention is paid to terroir, and cacao content is also of essence.

A man holds sea salt harvested from a salt field near Karachi, Pakistan. Salt is now being described with similarly elaborate vocabulary as wine, coffee and chocolate. 

Satin says even salt is getting more descriptors. We used to speak merely of table salt, but there’s also kosher salt, sea salt and fleur de sel (an expensive sea salt harvested from the surface of pools of evaporating sea water in France that is said to have high mineral content). There’s Brittany and Japanese sea salt, Hawaiian sea salt, Himalayan rock salt, finishing salt, flake salt, Kala Namak and now even smoked sea salt.

Satin likes the idea of using more refined language to describe the essential things we consume. It means we’re trying to renew our interest in the basics of life, he says, that “we’re starting to recoup a certain part of our consciousness, so our life isn’t just about work.”

This new language doesn’t initially roll off the tongue, Satin admits, so we have to practise it, but as we gain more confidence in knowing what is a good wine and what is good coffee, chocolate and salt, we’ll eventually have the words for it.

And we may already have the words, even if they’re not snob-sanctioned. At a wine-tasting party I attended a while back, we had to come up with a few lines for each wine.

People wrote descriptions like “cinnamon velvet” and “amber mist.” But my favourite was an Australian Shiraz someone said tasted like a “sunset in Manitoba.” I can’t think of finer language.

Are we trivializing the language of death?


May 19, 2011

I recently discovered that an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen for several years, had passed away. It came as a shock.

I didn’t know how to reach her family, so I did the only thing I could think of to connect: I looked her up on Facebook.

There I found pages and pages of condolences, most written about (let’s call her) Jane, the more traditional way. But some were written to her, as if she were still alive.

There were comments like: “OMG…RIP SOOOOO sorry to hear of your passing.” “Luv n thoughts r w u, i hope ur @ peace wherever u r.” “You are now somewhere safe and worry free!”

“R.I.P. YOU WILL BE MISSED SOOOOOO MUCH!!” And, “I’m sorry, Jane.”

Somehow I felt pressured to write her a little note as well. But it felt odd, uncomfortable even. And I wondered why.

I get that Facebook is a place to mourn — a digital gravesite, if you will.

But the difference is that what I would say graveside to my friend, or write in a letter to her parents or loved ones, is private. With Facebook, everyone’s condolence is there for all to read.

But what really bothers me is that these postings seem so mindless — that people don’t even have the courtesy to write a proper sentence to someone who has just died.

Digital deathspeak

Internet expert Jesse Hirsh suggests that the flippant comments could be some people’s way of addressing the absurdity of a death when that person’s profile is still active.

Today’s social media, he says, merely reflects a society that is increasingly secular and doesn’t yet have a protocol for dealing with death in a respectful manner.

Another element here is that digital technology has allowed us to adapt to a different model of communication, says Marco Adria, director of the Master of Arts in communications and technology program at the University of Alberta.

“We don’t write things to have them interpreted, we write for them to be broadcast. Like a radio broadcast, once it’s said, it’s gone.”

Now it’s making sense. Now I understand the posting: “I WAS SO PRIVILEGED TO HAVE KNOWN YOU.”

It’s a kind of Sarah Palin-style shout out — folksy and inappropriate at the same time.

But that’s okay, says Adria, “because conversations are complicated. Talking to the dead online can be easier than talking to people in real life, which can be messy and not turn out as you want.”

Dead people talking

Also, it’s becoming easier to write to the deceased, especially if they have a Facebook, Twitter or other online account. Their identity is still as it was — their interests, photos and postings, the causes they support — they’re all still online, even after they pass away.

“Technology works as a metaphor,” says Adria. “We refer to it as the net, as channels, as a transmitter. So just as we use it to chat with the dead, the dead can end up talking as well.”

And talk they do. There are dozens of famous dead people who don’t just have Twitter accounts, but communicate through social media as if they were still alive.

The stand-in for a witty Queen Victoria tweets: “Let me make this clear, I do NOT require 38 ministers to advise me on the happenings of the Dominion.” Dom Perignon (who always seems to be drinking) recently re-tweeted: “Prince Harry Gives ‘Brilliant’ Champagne Toast.”

 Britain's Queen Victoria (1819-1901). She really doesn't tweet, you realize. (Reuters)  Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Edgar Allan Poe constantly offers words of wisdom and Charles Darwin, in his dull note-taking style, tweets a description of each leg of his trips.

But perhaps William Shakespeare sums it up best when he tweets: “All this is but a dream.”

The late Marshall McLuhan (who incidentally has a Twitter and Facebook account) would no doubt agree with this otherworldly communication.

In Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan argues that technology is an extension of the human body. And that when you use technology, you lose part of your body.

For instance, the telephone extends the voice but “amputates” the hand used to write correspondence. The computer extends so many parts of the body — brain, voice, hands — that we lose other natural abilities.

In effect, says Adria, we tweeters and tech users become disembodied — ghost-like.

So, perhaps, we’re just as ghostly as the ghosts we communicate with. We have become more used to sending online messages into the ether than having face-to-face conversations.

Still, while I’m all for the Facebook tribute page, when it comes to commemorating the deceased, I’d rather make sure my message actually gets to the people most affected by the loss here on Earth.

That means writing my message by hand and sending it to the family.

Lost in simultaneous translation


Feb. 25, 2011

If you’ve been watching or listening to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen, you’ve likely heard an Arabic interpreter. They’re everywhere. And they can have different takes on the same message.

Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi’s recent “angry and rambling” speech did sound rather angry on Libyan state TV, but downright tepid via the CNN interpreter.

Then there was Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s now famous announcement that President Hosni Mubarak would be stepping down.

The Egyptian state television interpreter said Mubarak had decided to waive the office of the president, rather than relinquish, as others translated it.

Meanwhile, the CNN interpreter said the country would be run by the higher council of the armed forces rather than the Supreme Council, its proper name.

What’s more, the CNN interpreter repeated the president’s name three times, so caught up in his own excitement that he forgot the rule about trying to mirror the speaker’s emotions.

A word is like a bullet

Nit picking? Maybe. But don’t get me wrong. Simultaneous interpreters have an astonishing ability to process the words streaming into their ears in one language and instantly spew them out in another — but this highlights an interesting problem.

As the Arab world’s prominence in global affairs rises, so too does the need for Arabic interpreters.

And while interpreters hired by the news media may be very fine, they’re often not professionals, and experts say there may well be a need for quality control to ensure accuracy in message and tone.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens to the translation of a speech on his headphones at a UN conference in May 2009. (Reuters)

So I turned to the pros to find out how it’s done.

At the UN, interpreters learn to do two things no matter how intense the pressure: to faithfully render the message and, also, the emotion of the speaker.

The UN’s Arabic section chief Rasha Ajalyaqeen says interpreters adhere to the idea that a word is like a bullet: once it’s out, it cannot be retrieved or replaced.

Ajalyaqeen has worked for 27 years as an interpreter and says her heart still pounds going into the General Assembly or the Security Council. Her job is not only to be quick and accurate but to be on top of the issues.

From the moment she clicks on the news in the morning, her brain starts storing information she might need during the day.

Avoid duplicity

The last thing an interpreter wants is to be caught speechless. But sometimes a delegate can quote from an unknown or unseen document.

Ajalyaqeen says in the event of a disaster or high-profile death, someone is almost certain to quote from the Koran. To be prepared, she scribbles down verses to have on standby such as: “To God We belong, and to Him is our return.”

Interpreters also like to have on hand the Isaiah quotation: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

A good interpreter can move seamlessly between the syntax of Arabic and English, which is tricky because they’re so different.

Ajalyaqeen says preposition placement is important and so is verb, noun and adjective collocation — the first thing to go, she says, when you’re under stress.

Sentences in Arabic are also extremely long, so they need to be broken into more manageable components; Ajalyaqeen stresses that while you need to follow the rhythm of a speaker, you also need to remember the audience.

And, of course, you need the right words. Ajalyaqeen was in the Security Council during the first Gulf war when instead of saying “avoid duplication“, she said “avoid duplicity.”


Stress levels

To faithfully render a speaker’s message, simultaneous interpreters need to be on their toes.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi during his first ever address to the UN General Assembly in September 2009. He was supposed to speak for 15 minutes but went on for 96. (Reuters)

That means an hour of rest after 30 consecutive minutes of work. Less than that and quality suffers.

That rule was demonstrated in the fall of 2009 when Libya’s Gadhafi insisted on bringing his own interpreter to the General Assembly.

About 75 minutes into a meandering speech, observers noticed the interpreter was getting more and more stressed, and the interpretation was suffering.

Then he reportedly blurted into the live microphone: “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Ajalyaqeen heard it and sprinted the two blocks to the General Assembly to interpret the final 20 minutes of the speech. Talk about being on your toes.

Content and tone

The other element to good interpretation is accurately rendering the emotion of the speaker.

That means that if someone is outraged, you need to be outraged. If that person is disappointed, same goes for you.

If the speaker is passionately warning of dangerous civil unrest and you sound like a monotonic Tibetan monk, well, your credibility drops.

“No matter what your personal beliefs are, you’re supposed to be invisible,” says Ajalyaqeen. “You need to melt into the voice of the speaker. When they hear you as an interpreter, that’s when you fail.”

So if you’re translating for Gadhafi, you might need to bite your tongue. The potency of the message should override any subjectivity in the interpretation.

Speaking in more tongues

Today, interpretation may be more important than ever. The number of items at the UN requiring interpretation has skyrocketed, and more delegates are speaking Arabic.

Ajalyaqeen says that in the diplomatic world, it’s long been a matter of pride for delegates to speak other languages. But now, using one’s own language has that cachet.

More often than not, Arab delegates know a second or third language, but choose to speak Arabic, confident that their message will not be compromised.

Obviously, much of what interpreters at the UN deal with doesn’t affect those interpreters who work only in broadcasting. But the principles of staying true to content and tone remain the same.

As the number of issues affecting the Arab world increases, as activists try to use Egypt’s success to pull the rug out from long-sitting autocrats in the Middle East, and as satellite media expands, we’ll be hearing more and more interpretation.

Already, the voices of the interpreters on Al Jazeera are quite recognizable.

Mind you, it remains to be seen whether media interpreters, like those at the UN, can manage to stay invisible.

A better way to say hello


Nov. 9, 2010

It’s high time to do away with the mechanical greeting we North Americans employ. You know, the garden variety Hihowareyou/Good exchange that doesn’t really expect a serious answer.

In fact, when it comes to saluting our fellows, we could probably all learn something from the Dogon people in the West African country of Mali, where I recently spent a couple of months.

The tenacious Dogon live in villages on sandy plateaus clinging to rocky cliffs, an area of such unique cultural, geological and historic significance that it has been made a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Dogon language family consists of more than 20 languages and, where I stayed, the villagers spoke Tommo So.

Unlike us, they have elaborate greetings. One might go something like this:

First man: Let’s go into the morning.

Second man: Indeed. Did you pass the night?

First man: I did.

Second man: Did your menfolk pass the night?

First man: They did. Are you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are your menfolk in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Is your wife in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: Are you not ill?

Second man: There is no evil.

First man: Is the white woman staying with you in peace?

Second man: In peace.

First man: I see.

Then it starts all over again with the other person asking the questions.

Chorus of hellos

And that is just one exchange. Imagine greeting people each day as if you hadn’t seen them for months or years.

The Dogon repeat this ritual with every adult they encounter who is even remotely within earshot. They shout across waving fields of millet, from one motorbike to another, mid-way down a rocky path, with engines revved, while carrying awkward loads of craggy sticks to fuel the fire.


If a group is addressed, they even respond in chorus, which can make a visitor’s heart just sing with joy.

Like us, the salutations are modified according to the time of day — morning, after work or night.

What’s more, the greetings are such an important ritual that if you master them, they say that you are Dogon, because you can speak the language.

There are opportunities, of course, to talk about deeper issues, but only after the greetings are exchanged.

To greet, indeed, is to be human.


The greetings reflect West African society, where relationships are paramount, says Dogon expert Dr. Walter van Beek at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

They are an acknowledgement of a relationship — you’re a neighbour, a kinsman, a peer — a recognition that you’re part of a larger group and that you depend on each other.

This could explain why Malians always asked me (in French): Ça va bien? La famille, ça va? Et le Canada, ça va?

I wasn’t used to being asked how my country was doing. Ça va bien, ça va bien, I’d reply, secretly wondering if something horrible had happened back home while I was away.

Here in North America, our greetings essentially play the same role: to acknowledge one another and exchange information.

They are just more individualized. I am asking how you are doing, not your family and friends and hometown.

In our society, for the most part, the individual is paramount.

But if you factor in small talk, our salutations aren’t so different from these long African rituals, suggests Jerry Barkow, a social anthropologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Years ago, he worked among Hausa speakers in northern Nigeria and southern Niger and he sees similarities with our greetings here.

“In Nova Scotia, where I live, we talk about the weather,” he says.

“You can wonder why we bother because little or no new information is exchanged. But in fact, we are doing precisely what Hausa do with an extended greeting. We are maintaining and at times re-establishing or repairing a relationship.”

For sure, we do go on and on about the weather.

You know those exchanges: This weekend is supposed to be cold. Really? I thought it was supposed to be warm. Oh no, I saw snowflakes this morning. Well even so, they’ll melt by noon. Oh, I don’t know, they say this winter is going to be cold.

And then you both start to shiver, nod politely and move on.

A nod

I have to say, though, that I really liked the Dogon style of greeting. Within the first few weeks of my stay, I had memorized their elaborate ritual and could perform it flawlessly after a while.

Of course, as soon as they threw in an unfamiliar question, I became flustered and they laughed, good-naturedly of course. It felt so nice to spend time exchanging these words with the people who crossed my path. Never mind that it took twice as long to get anywhere.

The Dogon way seemed so much better than the quick Hihowareyou I was used to in Toronto. It was as if they cared more about each other’s well-being.

Since my return, I’ve been mindful of how I greet people. Sometimes there really is only time for a Hihowareyou/Good exchange.

But there are many occasions, I’ve discovered, when I can ask a thoughtful question that requires more than just a one-word answer. Questions like: What do you think of our new mayor? or How do you look so perky when you get up at 3 a.m.? or That’s the biggest backpack I’ve ever seen, what do you carry in it? (granted, this could get awkward).

It is gratifying to see the conversation, laughter and insight that a sincere query can elicit.

But I’ve also learned that even a quick nod or rushed greeting has value. It means we’re at least acknowledging each other’s presence.

In an age where hand-held devices have practically become a physical extension of our bodies, the mere fact that some of us are still looking up to SEE the people around us is a very healthy sign.

To greet, after all, is to be human.

A very slippery story


June 25, 2010

The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters) 

In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.

Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.

He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: so he can “know whose ass to kick.”

Oil-spill enabler

But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “words, words, words!”

Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.

“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.

According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”

To arrive at that, Payack’s Global Language Monitor tracked the frequency of words and phrases on the internet — in the news media, blogosphere and social media outlets — to figure out the predominant, unfiltered story.

It tracked word combinations such as “Obama/slow response/delayed response,” “BP/slow response/delayed response,” “Obama in command/not in command,” and “BP in command/not in command.”

According to Payack’s measurement, the popular opinion is that Obama was slow to respond and is not in command, therefore “enabling” the perpetrators, BP.

What’s more, this view appears to have completely overshadowed “Obama as health-care reformer.”

Remember health-care reform? That is supposed to have been the president’s great achievement.

The passive voice

So how did Obama lose control of the story?

The prime-time speech solidified the “enabler” narrative, in part, Payack says, because the president spoke at an unexpectedly high 10th-grade reading level, with the highest level of what are called passive constructions measured in any major presidential address in this century.

The passive voice in politics, says Payack, tends to either deflect responsibility or obscure who is taking action.

But while the government has lost control of the oil spill narrative, it’s not like BP has gained it.

The company is so desperate to have some control, any control, of the storyline that it’s actually buying up language.

Well, not in so many words. But for a while there it was buying up sponsored links at the top of Google and Yahoo. So if you typed in oil spill, BP oil spill, or oil spill response into their search engines, up popped BP’s official page to tell you about “BP’s progress on the Gulf of Mexico’s response effort.”

The company said it wanted to show what it was doing to contain the oil spill. That’s clearly not working too well for them.

So if neither the government nor the company is controlling the narrative, who is?

“If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you”, says Payack. And those others appear to be pundits, bloggers and journalists.

Obama’s prime-time address was billed as an “inflection point” (another oddly esoteric term for a very real disaster).

It was supposed to create a shift from the anxiety-provoking narrative of a slow response, to an uplifting narrative of hope and change and energy independence.

The American public, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it. A recent poll shows only 53 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a solid and effective leader, a seven-point drop since January.

Still, the president might yet wrestle back control in the next few months, in time for the mid-term elections. Because, sadly, this story is far from over.