Taking Crust

The other day I was characterizing somebody’s action that was pretty darned brazen. The phrase that immediately popped into my mind was “it takes crust,” so that is what I used. To my surprise and disappointment, the other party to the discussion had never heard that phrase before and had no idea what I was saying.

I can identify the source of this particular phrase with precision. It was one of Grandma Webner’s favorites, and always said with a look of abject disgust. It meant that the person in question was acting with unmitigated gall, impertinence, recklessness, and a complete lack of regard for social mores and Grandma’s accepted rules of behavior. Usually there was a certain element of hypocrisy in the mix, too. For example, if somebody with a well-earned reputation for sketchy and dubious behavior insisted that another person be held to the highest standards of conduct in their personal affairs, Grandma would get that look and say “it takes crust for so-and-so to do such-and-such.” And everyone who heard her knew exactly what she meant.

It’s a great little bit of American slang that apparently was much more commonly used in the early 1900s, although it seems to have fallen out of favor recently–as the bewildered reaction to my use of the phrase indicated. I’ve always thought that the phrase must draw from the meaning of “crust” as a kind of protective coating, and reflects that the impertinent actor must be hardened or oblivious to how polite society will react to their conduct. But “crust” is just too good a word to fall out of slang usage entirely, and according to the Urban Dictionary it is now used to described a particular kind of fast and garbled punk music, and it can also refer to a thing or person that is unappealing.

I like Grandma’s sense of the word better, and I’ll continue to use it, explain it when necessary, and do my part to ensure that “it takes crust” doesn’t fall completely out of usage.

“I Hear You”

I’ve noticed there’s a new phrase that, seemingly overnight, has become a staple in virtually every conversation, from simple chit-chat to multi-party business videoconferences.

The phrase is “I hear you.” It is used when one participant in a conversation is responding to an observation or argument that another party to the conversation has just made. The responses now often begin with “I hear you.” The responder might then proceed to agree and raise an additional point or gloss on what was just said, or amplify the point in some way, or follow “I hear you” with “but” and some form of disagreement. But the responder wants to make sure that the first speaker knows that his or her statements has been understood and assimilated, and they aren’t just people talking across each other. The “I hear you” statement is a way to get that point across. (And in a world of sometimes glitchy and frozen video connections, “I hear you” may also signal that you’re not experiencing technical difficulties, too.)

I’ve been interested in the spread of “I hear you,” and I wonder if linguists are, even now, tracing the use of the phrase back to its roots. I think the use of the phrase is a way of showing verbal respect and acknowledgement, even if the phrase might be followed by disagreement. It’s a form of polite, sensitive behavior that is an outgrowth of the desire to make sure that everyone is being heard and their views are being respected. I wonder if “I hear you” might soon become a basic building block of manners in the modern world, as common as “please” and “thank you.”

Spam, Spam, Spam, and Spam

Our days often begin with a review of our email boxes to delete the spam. The other day, as I was performing this mindless chore, I wondered: why are random, unwelcome emails (and now, phone calls too) called “spam”?

Even though the internet and email are recent developments in the arc of human history, the true origin of “spam” to refer to unwanted emails seems to be lost in the mists of time. “Spam” apparently is not an acronym, nor is it some kind of direct slam on the canned meat of the same name that is produced by the Hormel Foods Company and is evidently beloved in Hawaii. Instead, the most plausible explanation I’ve seen is that, in the very early days of the internet, undesired email was called “spam” as a reference to the Monty Python spam sketch, in which a diner menu recited by a waitress features multiple dishes made with spam, a gang of Vikings sing a song about spam, and a fed-up British matron is forced to confess that she doesn’t like spam.

Some claim the term “spam” was first used to describe email in 1993, when an early email user mistakenly sent multiple copies of the same email message; others say it dates back to the ’80s. In any case, the fact that there is a lot of spam email (like the spam-oriented dishes on the diner menu) and the spam email is not appreciated (like the diner patron who doesn’t like spam) seems to have been the connection that gave spam email its name.

Language is interesting, and “spam” email is a good example of why. In this instance, some early email user was a Monty Python fan who thought of the connection to the sketch and attached the name, it stuck and was used by early internet users, and then it spread to become the common term used by your iPhone, the filters on your computer, and the world of email users at large. It’s short, it’s as good a name as any, and if you’ve watched that classic Monty Python sketch, you know it’s apt. Like the high-pitched, purse-clutching English lady, we all “don’t like spam“!

Sports Versus Farming In Metaphor Land

Recently I was in a multi-person email exchange at work. The metaphors and similes were flying thick and fast and had taken a decidedly rustic turn when the B.A. Jersey Girl, who as her name suggests doesn’t initially hail from these parts, accused the sturdy Midwesterners involved in the exchange of “going all agro” in our references.

It was a fair comment, but it wasn’t the first time someone had observed that the metaphors and similes being employed weren’t particularly enlightening to all participants in a discussion. Usually, that happens when a non-sports fan finally cries out in frustration at being bombarded with rapid fire, increasingly cryptic sports references.

Both farms and sports are rich sources for the metaphors and similes we use to accentuate our points in colorful, graphic ways. There are more of them than we can possibly list. From the barnyard, we’ve got “fox in the henhouse,” “flown the coop,” “the horse has left the barn,” “chickens coming home to roost,” “strutting like a rooster,” “carrying the water,” “room like a pig pen,” being a “bell cow,” “acting like a sheep,” and “squealing like a stuck pig” — and that’s just “scratching the surface.” From the sports realm, we’ve got “home runs,” “slam dunks,” “fumbles,” “bunnies,” “Hail Marys,” “doing an end around,” “calling balls and strikes,” “blowing the whistle,” “play book,” “the ball’s in their court,” “putting on a full-court press,” “bush league,” and countless others that are “on the bench.” You may have used some of these yourself, and no doubt you can think of others.

I’ve tried to watch the overuse of sports references at work to be mindful of the non-sports fans out in the world; now I’ll also need to be mindful of farming references, too. But it makes me wonder: if you aren’t from the Midwest or other farmland areas, do you sprinkle your conversation with “agro” concepts anyway? And if you don’t use sports and farming metaphors and similes to illustrate your points, what references do you use to replace them?

Useful German Words

Many of us are familiar with the German word schadenfreude.  It refers to the pleasure you feel from observing another person’s misfortune.  Think about the guilty but nevertheless real surge of joy you get when your arch-rival sports team loses a big game, and you’ve captured it.

trachtSchadenfreude is a very useful word.  So why does a specific word for that sensation exist in the German language, but not in English?  What caused the Germans, at some point in the past, to identify that very particular feeling and coin a term for it, and why didn’t somebody in merry old England do likewise?  You can’t tell me that, during the period of one of their countless wars, the British weren’t happy to see the French take a pratfall.  Why didn’t they come up with a word to capture that specific unseemly yet nevertheless real surge of pleasure?

Schadenfreude doesn’t stand alone.  In fact, the Germans have been pretty good at creating lots of words that capture unique feelings or circumstances.  Here are some:

Futterneid — translated as “food jealousy” or “food envy,” it refers to the feeling you have when you go out to dinner with someone and they order food that looks much better than what you ordered, and you then suffer through the meal wishing you’d ordered their dish.

Fernweh — translated as “distance sickness” (the opposite of home sickness), it refers to the overpowering desire to be traveling, preferably to somewhere far away.

Fremdschamen — the uncomfortable feeling of embarrassment you experience when watching someone else go through a personally humiliating experience, like telling an unfunny joke to an audience or having way too much to drink at a work-related function.

Kummerspeck — translated literally as “grief bacon,” it refers to excess weight that is put on by emotional overeating.

Torschlusspanik — translated literally as “gate shut panic,” it identifies the fear that certain opportunities or activities are being closed to you as you get older.

Weltschmerz — the sensation of melancholy and resignation that you experience when your hopeful expectations about what will happen in the world fall disappointingly short . . . again.

We could use such words in English, so the word creators need to get cracking.  And isn’t it interesting how many of those German words describing unique, very precise feelings or conditions can be applied to what we are experiencing in 2020?

British Swear Words

Do our polite and refined friends from across the pond curse?  I know they use words like “bloody” when they want to up the emphasis a notch and demonstrate that they are really miffed, but do they ever actually swear?

Apparently they do!  Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s communications regulator — who even knew they had one! — interviewed more than 200 people to determine how they reacted to an array of rude and offensive terms and swear words, and then ranked them in order of offensiveness.  In order to be sure that they covered every form of communication, they threw in a few well-known hand gestures, too.  Words in the mild category include “bloody,” “bugger,” “damn” and “arse,” as well as “crap.”  (It’s hard to imagine someone with a British accent ever saying “crap,” isn’t it?)  “Ginger” and “minger” — which means an unpleasant or unattractive person — were also placed in the mild category.

The medium category then includes words like “bitch,” “bollocks” (which Americans of my age know because of the Sex Pistols) and “pissed,” as well as words I’ve never heard used, like “munter” (an ugly or excessively drunk person) and “feck” (a milder substitute for you-know-what).  From there we move up to the strong category, which curiously has “bastard” in it — suggesting that the Brits find “bastard” a lot more offensive than we do, perhaps of the connotations of the word in a land that still has royalty and nobility — and “fanny,” which seems pretty mild to me.  The strong category also includes a bunch of British slang I’ve not heard of before.  From there, the list moves up to the strongest category, where the queen mother of curses sits, as expected, atop the swear list pyramid.

The list apparently is to be used by the Brits in their communications, with words rated as mild considered to be okay to use around children, whereas most people thought the “medium” and “strong” words shouldn’t be used until after 9 p.m.  The study also found, encouragingly, that the Brits are increasingly offended by words involving race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.

I’m still finding it hard to believe that the Brits ever say “crap.”

The New Words Of 1957

Language is a living thing — ever-changing, morphing and adapting to develop new words to capture and describe new devices, thoughts, and concepts.  Merriam-Webster has come up with a nifty way to illustrate that point.  It’s called the Time Traveler, and it allows you to pick a year and see which new words were first used in print that year.

41hmjsg3yhlSo why not try 1957, the year of my birth and the year of the largest explosion of births in the American Baby Boom?  Just to set the context, it was the second term of the Eisenhower Administration, federal troops were called out to allow nine African-American students to attend Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 and started the Space Race, the last episode of I Love Lucy was broadcast and the first episodes of American Bandstand and Perry Mason aired on black and white TVs with rabbit ear antennas, and artists like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard dominated the popular music charts.

And according to the Merriam-Webster Time Traveler, in 1957 words like bitchin’, chuffed, fantabulous, herky-jerky, hipsterism, lowball, low-rent, magic mushroom, overkill, pothead, rumble strip, scumbag, and Zen-like first appeared in print and made their way into popular lexicon.  “Static cling” was coined — no doubt by a Madison Avenue-type — to describe the annoying condition of clothes that have just come out of the dryer, “gold record” was first used to describe a hit, and somebody thought that “happy camper” was a good way to describe a contented individual.  And more serious words and phrases, like amniocentesis, antiballistic missile, cardiomyopathy, computerize, informed consent, pat down, and transsexual entered the national vocabulary.

Where would we be without words like “low-rent” and “happy camper”?  I’d say that 1957 made our national conversation a little bit richer.

Learning From Words

Cultural anthropologists will tell you that simply learning about individual words in a language can teach you a lot about a people.  The fact that the Inuit and Yupik languages feature many different words for snow — words like “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled” — gives you a pretty good idea that the Inuit and Yupik live in a climate where snow is prevalent and minute differences in the form of snow can be really important.

li-24-schadenfreude-620x412So, what does it tell you about the German culture that Germans developed the words schadenfreude and gluckschmerz?  Schadenfreude refers to the sensation of feeling pleasure at the suffering of others, and gluckschmerz means feeling unhappy about the good fortune of others.  Neither of these words really has a close synonym in the English language.  That indicates that the Germans felt a need to capture and express precise sentiments that the English apparently weren’t experiencing all that often.

Schadenfreude and gluckschmerz suggest that the Germans are very emotionally sensitive, closely attuned to what’s happening to their perceived rivals, and deeply competitive with those people.  It’s worth noting that these precisely expressive German words seem to get borrowed most frequently when English speakers are talking about what has happened to rival sports teams or hated political opponents — which gives you a good sense of the intense, visceral feelings that Germans must be experiencing often enough to invent specific words for them.

So, are there words in the American idiom that would tell cultural anthropologists something meaningful about our culture?  Well, when you think about it, we seem to have a lot of words that describe, with subtle differences, people acting like jerks.

Speaking Mainish

America is a land of different accents. There’s the famous Southern drawl, of course, and the rapid-fire Brooklyn accent, and the quasi-Scandinavian inflections in the upper Midwest that were so effectively lampooned in the movie Fargo. There are so many regional accents in America, in fact, that the lower Midwest, where the Webner clan hails from, is reputed to be the most accent-free part of the country.

Lifelong Mainers have their own unique accent. In fact, calling it an accent really doesn’t do it sufficient justice — it’s like a slightly different language that should be called something like Mainish. When you’re first introduced to Mainespeak it takes some getting used to. It’s a combination of a slow, drawn-out, multi-syllabic cadence and different approaches to pronunciation that produce a way of speaking that feels ancient and deeply rooted. “There” gets turned into they-yuh. Nobody likes pronouncing the letter “r” at the end of words, either — it’s as if it is some junk letter that shouldn’t be part of the alphabet in the first place. So you can just call us the Webnahs. And there are undoubtedly other eddies and currents and backwaters in the river of Mainespeak that we haven’t even been exposed to yet — such as when a fellow I was talking to mentioned the lanch of a boat.

It’s curious and delightful being here among the Mainers and listening to them talk. You might say we’re getting an immersion course in Mainish.

Learning To Speak Chatbotese

So, two chatbots were learning to negotiate and were talking to each other.

(This sounds like the first line of a bad joke, doesn’t it?  And for those of you, like me, who aren’t exactly sure what “chatbots” are, they are computer programs designed to engage in simulated conversations with human beings, such as over the internet.  I think they also can be called “dialog agents.”)

Anyway, researchers at the Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research Lab were using “machine learning” to train these two chatbots to negotiate and deal with each other, through talking or engaging in “simulated conversations,” or whatever.

70720-the-terminator-endo-skeleton(“Machine learning,” for those of you who are clueless about it like me, is an artificial intelligence model in which computer behavior isn’t tied to specific, fixed programming.  Instead, it involves the use of analytical algorithms that allow computers to review and “learn” from data, with the computer programming changing as new data is assimilated, thereby hopefully allowing the computers to identify new insights or patterns in the data they are reviewing.  Got it?  Well, I’m not sure I really do, either, but at least I didn’t use the word “iterative” in describing it.)

So, anyway, the researchers were observing these two chatbots that were using machine learning to develop their negotiation abilities when the researchers noticed something odd:  the two chatbots had stopped using human language and started to use a language of their own.   And they also quickly picked up on standard techniques that allowed them to become pretty effective negotiators.

Interesting, isn’t it, that computers using techniques that allowed them to follow their own leads ended up realizing that human language wasn’t the most efficient way to proceed, and decided to  develop their own form of communication?  And, in so doing, they scratched off another of the former dividing lines that are supposed to differentiate humans from everything else — the ability to develop language.  It would be fascinating to know what the chatbot language was like.  What were the words used?  Did it involve any adverbs?

We’re on the far technology frontiers these days, where we’re inching closer to true artificial intelligence and computers that think for themselves and, presumably, will start to factor their own interests into what they are doing.  You can think of the Terminator movies, or 2001, or The Matrix, or any of a slew of sci-fi novels where computers go rogue and target humanity — or you can hope that computers will just be happy to acquire some form of self-awareness, without using their remorseless computer logic to judge the imperfect humans that created them and find them wanting.

Maybe the chatbots invented a word for that.

Knackered

A few days ago, the word of the day on our word calendar was “knackered.”  It’s a British word that is synonymous for “tired.”

puppy-fell-asleep-in-dog-food“Knackered” is presumptively an excellent word, because all words that begin with a “k” are.  (Kish agrees with this point.)  It’s a fun word to say and kind of rolls off the tongue, too.  But it’s also an extremely useful word because, especially as you get older, it’s increasingly common to become tired as the work week progresses, and having another word that you can use to describe your condition is very welcome.

When you think about it, there are almost as many words that express being tired as there are for being drunk.  And, there are some fine gradations between them.  I would put “fatigued,” “enervated,” and “weary” at the less tired end of the spectrum, whereas “exhausted,” “dead on my feet,” and “bone tired” would hold down the opposite end, where you can barely stand and have to watch that you don’t nod off at the dinner table (or with your head in the dog food bowl).  “Beat,” “wiped out,” “shot,” “spent,” “worn out,” “bushed,” “tuckered out,” and (Mom’s favorite) “too pooped to pop” would be somewhere in between.

Knackered would be more toward the “exhausted” end of the spectrum, because in some parts of the former British Empire it’s also slang for “broken” and is derived from a word for “to kill.”  And, because it’s of British lineage, you can sound classy when you express the depth of your fatigue.

Feel free to use it the next time you drag yourself home from work and somebody asks how you’re doing.

Speaking Dogese

Researchers in Hungary have found evidence that dogs do process and, to a certain extent, understand human speech.  Using brain scanning technology, the researchers determined that the right parts of canine brains process words and the left parts process pitch, the same way that human brains work.  And the study confirms what any dog person already knows:  dogs react to the particular combination of speech and pitch.

gingerOne interesting aspect of the study is that is provides some insight into how animal brains react to human speech.  That’s hard to test, because most animals try to avoid humans and have no interest in listening to humans yammer on or trying to understand what we’re talking about.  Our canine friends, on the other hand, have been connected with humans for tens of thousands of years and have evolved to welcome, and provide, companionship for humans.  They basically have to care what the humans in their lives are saying to them, so they pay attention when other animals just ignore our blather.

I have no doubt that Kasey understands some of what we say.  When we speak to her, her ears perk up, her head tilts a bit, and her tail starts wagging if the message is a happy one.  Of course, we don’t try to discuss the fine points of philosophy or quantum theory with her, but her limited vocabulary is quite sufficient to cover the basics of her existence.  I’d guess her working vocabulary consists of about ten words, all typically spoken in the same way with exaggerated tones and grouped into five functional life categories that allow her to live a pretty happy dog life:

  1. Self-awareness:  Kasey
  2. Eating:  food, breakfast, dinner, hungry
  3. Basic discipline and interaction:  Good girl!, Bad girl!, No!
  4. Fun:  Walk
  5. Sleep:  Bed

As I type this, I realize that I have probably never said “yes” to Kasey or, for that matter, any other dog.  Fortunately, they aren’t craving positive reinforcement.  They’re just happy to hang out with us.

Down The “Sunday Throat”

Yesterday I took a drink of water that caught in my throat.  I spluttered and did a bit of a spit take, and in my mind I distinctly heard by mother saying that the drink must have gone down my “Sunday throat.”

71887260_25268180_clothesintheearly1900s_getty_90775467“Sunday throat”?  It’s a curious expression.  Of course, when you’re a kid and it’s something your Mom says as she’s pounding you on the back, trying to dislodge a piece of hamburger lodged near your Adam’s apple, it doesn’t seem weird.  Kids tend to assume that every word their Mom uses must, by definition, be commonplace.  It’s only when you get older and start to get weird looks when you use phrases like “Sunday throat” or “elbow grease” that you begin to realize that maybe the Momisms that you know so well aren’t widely used at all.

“Sunday throat” falls into that category.  A Google search doesn’t turn up much; the World Wide Words website, in response to a question from a fellow Midwesterner, found only a few uses of the phrase in literature to describe choking, and concluded that “Sunday” is being used in the sense of “special” or “alternative,” as in “Sunday best.”  I think that’s not quite right.  I always assumed that the “Sunday throat” was the throat that didn’t work — as in Sunday being the traditional day of rest.

Mr., Ms., Or Mx.?

Recently the New York Times used the honorific “Mx.” — pronounced “mix” — at the request of one of the subjects of an article.  “Mx.” is a gender-neutral title, and thus some transgender people, or people who would rather not be assigned a gender at all, prefer it to references like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.”

The Times‘ use of Mx. caused many of the current and former journalists among us — those who have had to worry about complying with Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style or the local paper’s version thereof — to wonder whether we’re on the verge of a change in how we treat courtesy titles.  The Times‘ associate masthead editor for standards says, “not so fast!”  In a piece about the issue, he says that “Mx.” isn’t in the stylebook — yet — but that the issue is an evolving one and the Times likely will change with the times.  (Pun intended.)  The article adds:  “In this as in other areas of language and usage, The Times is not looking to lead the way, set the rules or break new ground. Our hope is to reflect accepted, standard usage among educated readers.”

309863-53677-mr-mxyzptlkIs adding “Mx.” to the honorific mix (pun also intended) a big deal?  Nah.  I’m old enough to remember when newspapers added “Ms.” to the then-existing line-up of “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and “Miss,” after women understandably objected that using titles that reflected marital status in news articles was somewhat silly.  Some wags made dire predictions about breakdowns in social order, but “Ms.” entered the lexicon and the republic survived — and now, does any newspaper ever use “Miss” to refer to an adult woman anymore?

As the Times’ style piece points out, unlike “Mr.” and “Mrs.” — and “Ms.” which was a cross of “Mrs.” and “Miss” — “Mx.” is not an abbreviation of an accepted English term.  In a way, this is a liberating development.  Why should we forever be saddled with stodgy references that gained currency during Victorian times?  In fact, why shouldn’t we be able to use honorifics that have no reference to gender at all and instead more precisely suit our immediate mood and current position in the world?  As the Times noted, some think we should move to even more ambiguous honorifics, like “xe” or “ze” — but even if you stick with terms that start with “m,” and therefore will more likely be recognized as an honorific, you’ve got a big choice.

Consider some of these options to select from:

Mo. — When you’ve just converted on a third-and-long

Me. — When you’re feeling self-centered

Max. — When you’re feeling on top of the world

Mud. — When you’ve just done something incredibly embarrassing

Mem. — When you’re a white collar worker

Mug. — When you’re in the mood for a frosty adult beverage

Mxyzptlk. — When you’re a powerful and mischievous being from the Fifth Dimension here to torment Superman for entertainment.

There’s a lot of options to throw into the mix.

 

At A Paris Grocery

As usual, we are staying in an apartment during our trip to Paris.  It’s the apartment of the vivacious Josette, where Richard and I stayed several years ago.  It’s a great location, right next to the Luxembourg Gardens, in a neat residential neighborhood.

001One of the true advantages of the apartment rental experience in a place like Paris is the chance to get away from the commercial areas and get out with the Parisians.  Because we’re in an apartment, we need items like orange juice, coffee, milk, wine, and beer.  (Of course, you would never dream of buying bread in a grocery store; you’ve got to go to the bakery for that.)

There are a huge array of other items to try along the tight aisleways, and you can always find bins of fresh fruits and vegetables under the striped green outer awnings.  There are some language challenges — my de minimus French skills can’t distinguish ground coffee from whole bean, for example — but you typically can make do with some careful looking (and, in the case of packaged coffee, giving it a squeeze to see whether it feels ground.)  The proprietors of these neighborhood groceries are unfailingly pleasant and helpful, too.

Shopping at a local grocer in a foreign land is one of the things that makes travel fun.