Tag: language

The Sperm Whale in the Room

close up of sperm whale underwater
Photo by Emma Li on Pexels.com

It started with the September 11, 2023 issue of The New Yorker. The issue contained a fascinating feature by Elizabeth Kolbert titled, “Can We Talk to Whales?” The article followed several researchers affiliated with CETA (Cetacean Translation Initiative) in their quest to see if humans and whales could communicate. What made it all the more fascinating was the use of large language models like ChatGPT.

The researchers were not exactly using ChatGPT to try to speak to sperm whales. Rather, they were attempting to use a similar concept in developing a language model based on sperm whale songs. ChatGPT works by creating a neural net trained on millions (if not billions) of pages of human-written text (and code) available on the Internet. Then, given an input, the language model puts together an answer based upon the a range of likely next word in a phrase, building up responses. At this point, my own understand is that most experts don’t believe that ChatGPT has any comprehension of the words it is putting together.

For the CETI project, efforts are being made at recording vast amounts of sperm whale song. When enough of a corpus has been gathered, a large language model will be trained on these recordings. Then, much like ChatGPT, if a whale song is provided as input, the LLM will provide a whale song in response. What I find most fascinating about this is that we won’t necessarily know what the input or response mean, or if they are significant in any way, but it will be interesting to see how the whales respond.

Clearly, I enjoyed the article. It was one of those articles that I wished was even longer. (Fortunately, it was a particularly good issue of the magazine for science articles. There was another great article in that issue, “The Transformative, Alarming Power of Gene Editing” by Dana Goodyear.)

The next day, several new magazines arrived in the mail. When a new magazine arrives, I enter the feature articles into a text file I keep. Each evening, I have script that sends me an email with a randomly-selected feature article to read the next day (two articles on Friday and Saturday evenings). I was entering the list of articles fro the October 2023 Scientific American into my text file, when I came across an article by Lois Parshley titled, “Talking with Animals” and on the cover page to the article was a picture of a sperm whale and a caption that read, “The Project Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI) is using machine learning to try to understand the vocalizations of sperm whales.” What a coincidence, I thought, having just read Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on the same subject in The New Yorker.

I moved on to the other magazine that arrived that day, the October issue of WIRED. I was eager for this issue because there was a story about Open AI by Steven Levy, and I always enjoy his writing. But as I was entering the features in to my text file, I came across this one, listed in the contents as “How to Chat with the Whales” by Camille Bromley. (Inside the magazine, the article was called “Calls of the Wild.”) Once again, the article was about, at least in part, project CETI and using AI to communicate with whales.

One time is random. Twice is a coincidence. Three articles about talking with whales using AI–that seems like a pattern to me. I can’t recall the last time so specific a subject was featured in three different magazines so close together. I have yet to read the articles in Scientific American or WIRED (my daily random article generator hasn’t selected them yet), but I am looking forward to them.

I thought that was the end of it.

And then I was skimming the New York Times early in the morning, as I am wont to do, and came across an article by Sonia Shah, “The Animals Are Talking. What Does It Mean?” While this article was more broad and philosophical, it once again discussed CETI and ChatGPT and using language models to decipher whale.

Finally, in an effort to give my brain a rest, I kept my reading fairly light over the weekend, and I watched the Disney+ series Ahsoka. And you know what was in that series?

Star whales.

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When a Phone Is No Longer a Phone

Photo by Tyler Lastovich on Pexels.com

We need a new term for the devices many (if not most) of us carry around in our pockets. I have an iPhone, as do the other members of the family. Several times a day, I hear things like, “Has anyone seen my phone?” “There’s an alarm going off on your phone.” “Mom, you just got a message on your phone.” “Put your phones away, it’s not device time.” However, I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I’m on a call,” or “you’re phone is ringing.” We use these devices constantly, but we rarely use them as phones in the classical sense.

Thinking about this, I checked the call history on my own phone. There are dozens of “missed” calls because I don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize. In the month of September (it being the evening of September 30 as I write this) I made 4 calls from my phone. I received two calls from numbers that I recognized and answered. 6 calls in a month. Meanwhile, I use my “phone”constantly for reading email, text messages, as well as audio books, reading newspapers, keeping up with social media, and occasionally watching shows like the new Foundation series on Apple TV+, or Ted Lasso.

The “reading” screen on my “phone.”

As someone who spans the digital divide, a phone, to me, is the thing on the wall in the kitchen with the cord that always gets tangled and can never be untangled, though which you talk to friends and family at a distance. For my kids, a phone is where you watch YouTube videos and from which you make TikTok videos, as well as play Minecraft or Roblox. It seems to me, we need a new name, something that better represents what this device is.

Sometime in the late 1990s (I think) someone coined the term “personal digital assistant”, or PDA for short. Unfortunately, PDA became a popular shortening of “public display of affection” which makes it an awkward candidate for an alternate name for a phone.

“Smart” phone is frequently used. I see references to smart phone everywhere, but this doesn’t work for me because it seems patently silly. The phone is not smart. It may make its users seem smart, but let’s not kid anyone that it is the phone that is smart. Then, too, “smart phone” still refers to “phone” which is the thing I am trying to avoid.

Taking some inspiration from the science fiction world, “brain pal” came to mind. Brain pal, of course, comes from Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. For something I carry around in my pocket, however, brain pal doesn’t seem to fit all that well.

What about “computer”? After all, a phone really is just a computer, all miniaturized down into a hand-sized package? These days, however, phones often do more than computers. The take photos and videos; they have all kinds of biometric capabilities. They can detect changes in surroundings, can identify their location on the globe, and even their altitude above or below sea-level. “Computer” seems a little too mundane.

When all is said and done, “phone” is likely the best we can do, and I suppose we are stuck with it. Rather than change the term, we just have to understand that the meaning has evolved, and we need to evolve along with it. We did it with albums. An album used to to be a record, a flat disk that you played with a needle on a turntable. Albums had tracks that ran around them and represented individual songs. We still use the term “album” although we usually don’t mean the disk, and we use the term “track” to mean a digitally stored piece of music. Those terms have evolved into what they are today and are commonly accepted. I guess I’ll need to do the same for “phone.”

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A Picture Is Worth Four or Five Words

In an essay titled “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, Isaac Asimov tried to imagine the future of books. After progressing through increasing stages of sophistication, what remained was–well, the kind of books we have today: the ones that sit on shelves and are made from trees. They were, he was arguing, already as good as they could possibly be.

When I think of the future of books, my vision isn’t quite so rosy. What I imagine is pages filled with nothing but one animated GIF after another. Why use words when a 5-second animation of Jeff Daniels slapping his forehead is so much more descriptive?

It seems to me that nearly everyone I know communicates primarily through animated GIFs. (Is it pronounced “Jif” like the peanut butter, or “gif” like a present minus the t? More than three decades in I.T. and I still don’t know the answer.) They are particularly common in comment threads of Facebook posts. Typing out “get the popcorn” is no longer adequate to convey ones meaning. A 6-second movie is required so that you can watch someone with maniacal eyes reach over and over into a box of popcorn, trying to stuff it all into their mouths.

Half of the GIFs I see come from popular television shows or movies. Steve Carell seems to be particularly popular for his wide variety of facial expressions. I guess our own expressions aren’t good enough. I don’t people making animated GIFs of their own expression. It is as if we can’t think of a good way to express ourselves, so we will let someone else do it for us.

I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that there is some amount of convenience to this kind of appropriation. Animated GIFs are like clichés. Now there are people who abhor clichés, but I don’t really mind them. I think of them as syntactic subroutines. When someone says, “It is what it is,” we all know what they mean because we are all familiar with the function of that particular subroutine. I suppose that animated GIFs are just another iteration of the cliché, a modernization of the verbal subroutine.

I tend to avoid animated GIFs because it seems to me that I can type whatever I mean faster than it would take me to find an appropriate GIF. I am easily distracted (especially when writing) and a search for one animated GIF would likely lead to half an hour down a rabbit hole. I’d end up with a dozen GIFs that I thought were good for some purpose, but not the one I set out looking for. I’d then find an excuse to use them. Those GIFs would burn holes in my virtual pockets. The thing I intended to say (“Can’t wait to see you!”) would not only never get written, but would be forgotten.

There does seem something catching about the animated GIF. Once one person posts one in a thread, everyone else feels the needs to post one. They are like digital yawns in that regard. I also sense a bit of competition when it comes to the animated GIF. Who can find the GIF that best expresses the thought most precisely. I find this to be a daunting competition because without the words on the screen to express it, I’m never quite sure what that thought it.

I realize that I might come across as a grumpy old man with these thoughts on animated GIFs. To that all I can say is:

Oh, the profanity!

In many ways, I still see myself as just a kid. I think the same thoughts I did when I was a kid, I occasionally ask the same questions I did when I was a kid. While reading about a particularly fascinating profession, I will to this day, say to myself, “When I grow up, I want to do that.” Some things, I guess, you never grow out of. Take profanity, for instance.

Let me start by saying I have absolutely no moral objection to profanity. It is just another means of expression. It’s not a means of expression that I use in the ordinary course of my day. My aversion to profanity comes from some deep-seated fear when I was a kid, that if said a “bad word,” I’d be in big trouble. I’m not exactly sure where this came from. But it stuck with me. With the exception of a period of a few years between 7th and 9th grade or so, when everyone around me was using profanity the way we use “like” today, I have avoided it.

Actually, it’s not even that I’ve avoided using profanity. It’s just not something that is in my daily lexicon. Whenever I do end up using a bad word, I almost instantly regret it. Not because it was a profane, but because it was a bad word choice. There’s almost always a better way for me to express a thought other than using profanity.

The fact that I don’t generally use profanity is another of those things that makes me see myself as just a kid. Friends and family use profanity and I think, wow, they’re so grown up; when I grow up, I’ll be just like them. It rarely comes to pass. Indeed, there are three occasions when the probability that I’ll use profanity increases dramatically.

First, in fiction. I’ve said before that writing fiction, for me, is in many ways like method acting. I need to feel what the characters are feeling. And since generally, the people around me use profanity more than I do, characters in my fiction will use it from time to time. I have no problem with profanity in fiction, television, movies, etc. What I find interesting is that people object to this, to the point that they are willing to call you out on it. When my story, “Take One for the Road” appeared in Analog (June 2011), it received several reviews in the usual places. I remember only one of them, however, from someone who objected to the grumpy old man in the story using the word “shit.” It was the only bad word in the story, and in my mind, it was completely in character. Any other expression in that situation by that character would have seen unrealistic. What I find most interesting is that I have no problem writing dialog with profanity, but when I re-read it, I am always a little uncomfortable. It’s that little kid in my thinking he’s going to get his mouth washed out with soap.

Second, while writing code. There are two use cases here. One is where I am deep in the code, in a kind of coma that takes over when I am trying to hold the complicated logic of a program in my head. I’ll finish up a piece and execute it to test it, and something goes wrong. When that happens, I’ll let out a string of profanity that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. I am always alone when this happens. The second use case is similar, except that when I execute the complicated piece of code I just completed and it works, I’ll usually allow a good old, “fuck yeah!”

Third, is when I injure myself. Bang a knee, step on a Lego. Whenever it happens, it’s usually followed by a “Shit, oww!”

Of course, I enjoy a good dirty joke, but I am especially fond of joke that use profanity in clever ways. Two examples, that I won’t repeat here, can be found in Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor. They are the last two jokes in the books, numbers 639 and 640. If you can find the book, it’s worth looking them up.

We’ve tried not to make a big deal about profanity with our kids. We generally don’t use it around them, but we also know they hear it at school, and see it on TV. We don’t make a big deal beyond explaining that there is a time a place for it, more so with kids. I think they will end up using profanity more than I do. It’s kind of built into the language for them these days. Of course, when they have used it, it is Kelly who handles it calmly and rationally. I am usually too busy rolling around on the floor laughing.

Guest Post: “Created Words in Science Fiction — how do they work?” by Juliette Wade

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. Today, in my absence, as a special treat, I am so pleased to have a guest post by my friend, and fellow Analog-writer, Juliette Wade In addition to being a wonderful writer of stories, Juliette is also a linguist by training. I urge you to check our her website, TalkToYoUniverse, and follow her on twitter, @JulietteWade. And with that said, let me hand it off to Juliette.

One of science fiction’s defining characteristics is the creation of new words to describe  worlds. While television and movies have seen a recent trend toward the creation of entire alien languages, word creation is vitally important also for written stories, even those set in worlds only slightly different from our own. I thought I’d take a look at some of the kinds of words which are created for science fictional contexts, and discuss how they work.

Created words can be arranged on a scale between most and least familiar. At the most familiar end are words from English which have simply been re-purposed for use with novel concepts. At the other end are completely alien words. Naturally, the further toward the alien end of the scale the words are, the more difficulty a reader will have in understanding them. Eventually, a narrative too full of alien words can become impenetrable, so my own rule of thumb says that if you want to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the story, use as few alien words as possible, and if you want to create a sense of alienness, use more. If we look at examples from science fiction stories, we find that authors don’t use only one kind of word. They mix words from different areas of the scale.

Let’s get specific.

You typically know an alien word when you see one. They look like this: “Na’vi” (James Cameron’s Avatar) “Ariekei” (Embassytown by China Mieville) “Dirokime” (A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge). They bear no linguistic relation to English, other than being written in English characters. Luckily, English speakers do still have ways to pull meaning out of them.

We use our sense of onomatopoeia, our sense of the “feel” of sounds. We’re familiar with onomatopoeia from words like “bow-wow,” and “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but also from words like “drip” and “drop,” “gallumph,” “pitter-patter” and “smash.” You can read my article about onomatopoeia at this link: http://talktoyouniverse.blogspot.com/2008/09/bow-wow-boom-smash-onomatopoeia.html . We find that, even across languages, voiced sounds like “b” “d” “g” etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents “p” “t” “k” tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. It’s no surprise that when I created an alien word for a large waterfall, I decided to call it “sàth,” using a wide-open vowel and two unvoiced fricatives (s and th) that make you hear the rushing of water. I didn’t plan that word consciously, but imagine how much smaller that waterfall would have seemed if I’d named it “sìth” — and if I’d called it “dìt,” it wouldn’t have seemed very waterfall-like at all. We also use resemblance between words to evaluate potential meanings, as when we see a word like Frank Herbert’s musical instrument, the “baliset” (Dune). Inside that word live the echoes of familiar musical words — “balalaika,” “quartet,” or maybe “quintet” — helping to give the word its “feel.”

Beyond those hints, a reader must rely on the author to teach the meaning of the word. This brings me to another type of science-fictional semantics, all the way on the opposite end of the scale. Sometimes authors will take English words that we know very well, and change their significance for alien worlds. Take the word “Net”, or “Hosts” for example. The trick with using these types of words is that they can’t be too specific to our own world. The vast distributed computer system that extends across the galaxy in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is called the Net; it wouldn’t make any sense to call it the World Wide Web, or even the Web, because that term has come to seem archaic in our own world, and Vinge’s Net is anything but archaic. Frank Herbert uses “Voice” to describe a tone of voice that creates a visceral command in the mind of its hearers. China Mieville uses the word “Hosts” to describe the alien residents of the planet on which his fictional human embassy is located. In doing so he defines the social relationship that the aliens bear to the humans, one of hospitality and also of tolerance, while leaving room for the aliens to be powerful and inscrutable.

A word becomes generic when it has been heard in so many different contexts that no single context wins an overriding association with it. That makes it an ideal candidate for extension to an alien environment. As with fully alien words, the author’s job is to teach readers what the word means in that science fictional environment. You can even see authors telling readers to look out for extra or different meaning when they use Capitalization, which suggests Greater or Alternate Significance.

So what other features can put us on the lookout for words that signify new concepts in a science fictional world? When we see alien words, our simple lack of understanding tells us to look for a new meaning; with redefined English words, capitalization can be a hint that pricks up our semantic senses. In both of those cases, we’re looking for the author to teach the new significance using surrounding context. However, those aren’t our only tools. There are two other word types I’d like to mention here:

  1. Derivative words
  2. Translation-derived words
  3. Compound coinages

These are all very common in futuristic science fiction, because they are clearly words from our own world, yet they can be quickly understood on the basis of their derivations.

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Using words

I take some occasional heat from friends, family and coworkers for my vocabulary. There are, it seems, times when I use a word that those around me are unfamiliar with. I am asked what the word means, and give the definition to the best of my ability and then try to move on. It is not always that easy. Sometimes, I am accused (mostly by close friends or family) of using a “fancy” word when another more common word would have suited. This is not at all my intention and I generally have two responses to this:

  1. I try to use words that precisely convey my meaning. Often times the word I chooses means exactly what I say, whereas substituting a simpler word subtracts from the meaning.
  2. What is the point of learning all of those SAT words if not to put them to practical use.

I sometimes get the feeling that people think I am joking when I make that remark about the SATs, but I am not. I try to put to some practical use everything I have learned. Else, what’s the point in learning it in the first place? There has to be more to learning than just grades and degrees.

This is on my mind today because I had the need to make use of the word “holographic” in its pre-modern sense this morning and hesitated to do so, thinking of the grief that people give me. A coworker had sent me an email which contained a scanned-in article upon which he’d made some handwritten comments. In forwarding the article to my boss and grandboss, I asked them to take particular note of the “holographic comments” in the article. Most people today are probably familiar with the term holographic as a trope of science fiction. But it has an even older definition that means “of or being a document written wholly in the handwriting of the person whose signature it bears.” Clearly the term “holographic” in this sense is a much more succinct description than a phrase such as “so-and-so’s handwritten comments.”

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Fu(n)ky Monkey

There are some thing that I knew I wouldn’t be very good at as a parent. This afternoon was an example of one of them. I was changing the Little Man’s diaper and he asked for his monkey, which he saw sitting off to one side of the room. I got it for him and continued to change him and clean him up. Seeing the monkey brought to mind the Beastie Boys song, “Brass Monkey”. So I started singing that song to him, “Brass monkey, that funky monkey!”

The Little Man has been getting better and better at imitating us and repeating what we say. He liked the song at once because it had the word monkey in it. There was just one problem. He was not pronouncing the “n” in “funky”. I’ll let you infer the result yourself. Needless to say I was helpless with laughter which is precisely the wrong response to have in these situations. I brought the Little Man downstairs so that Kelly could finish dressing him. I was a broken reed.

A few minutes later, sitting on the couch watching TV, he starts blurting out the verse again, once again leaving out the “n” in “funky”. I lost it, laughing so hard there were tears in my eyes. The Little Man picked up on exactly which word I was laughing at and dropped “monkey”, focusing his attention entirely on the n-less “funky” again and again and again. Kelly muttered that my laughter was not helping but I could see a smirk on her face.

We all calmed down but Kelly made it clear that I can explain to the teachers at his school if he starts to sing the song there. Oh, what the heck, it’s all an innocent mistake. Hilarious, but innocent.

Continuing adventures of the Little Z-Man

The Little Man is communicating more and more every day. Today I noticed he had adjectives. He knows when something is hot, for instance. If he has food that is hot, he’ll say, “Hot!” and he’ll make like he’s blowing on it. He does the same thing if he feels the heat coming in through the floor vents in the house.

He knows “big”. Today when we were walking home from the park he pointed to a tree and said, “Big tree.”

He’s gotten so many more words now I don’t even try to keep up. “House”, “road”, “car”, “park”, “swing”, “slide”, “sand”, “shoes”. One of his favorites is “shower” we he pronounces in true Brooklynese as “Show-wuh.” He’ll come to me in the morning and say, “Daddy, show-wuh.” Or he’ll hear Kelly in the shower in the morning and say, “Mommy, show-wuh.”

We’ve told him, of course, about the baby. We keep reinforcing that the baby is coming, and that mommy is growing a baby in her tummy. Depending on his mood, if you ask him, “Hey, buddy, where’s the baby?” he will either tap Kelly’s belly and say, “Baby!” or he’ll pull up his own shirt, pat his own belly and say, “BABY!”

He’ll put three word sentences together with some regularity and he picks stuff up incredibly quickly. I’ve pointed out a stop sign to him twice and told him we stop at stop signs. Today we came to a stop sign on our walk and I said, “What’s that?”

“Stop sign,” he said.

“What do we do?”


He’s very good at sharing, but I think he interprets it as trading. He’ll offer a toy of his to another toddler in exchange for a toy of theirs.  But then he refused to give their toy back. “No, mine!” he says. He can get very petulant in those instances.

He will ask for things that he wants to do. “Daddy, car?” he’ll say, meaning he wants to go out to the car and sit in the drivers seat, something he and I do from time-to-time.

“Okay,” I say, let’s go.

We head for the door and he’ll become suddenly concerned. “Daddy, keys!”

But there’s one word that I’ve taught him that he’s finally learned and it just cracks me up to hear him say it. It has replaced “yucky!” as my favorite of his expressions. I’ve taught him to say, “Tushie!” and he’ll say it and reach around to grab his backside.

The End.

The SHAPE of things to come

Sometimes I am taken aback by how quickly the Little Man is learning things. I mean I am made virtually speechless. When Kelly and I go to pick him up from school, we sometimes watch him play for a little while before going into the classroom. If he sees us, he stops what he’s doing and runs to us, lunging himself into our arms.

Yesterday, we went in while they were doing an activity. All of the little kids were sitting around while one of the teachers showed them flashcards with shapes and ask them what the shape is. You know, circles, ovals, stars, triangles. The Little Man jumped into my arms when he saw me. Then the teacher showed a flashcard with a star on it. “What is this?” she asked.

“‘Tar!” replied the Little Man–and I was stunned. I had no idea he was learning shapes, let alone could recognize them and say the words.

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Where daddy speaks about the Little Man speaking

Because I haven’t written about the escapades of the Z-man in nearly a week, I felt that a post was overdo.

It seems like the Z-man’s language is expanding in some Hubble-like function. I picked him up from school earlier in the week and his teacher told me that he is constantly saying “Please” when he wants something. This is my fault. I say fault because the Little Man quickly learned that Kelly and I find it adorable when he says, “Peeeez!” He understands quite well that he is virtually irresistible and we will usually cave in to his request. We only do this, you understand, to reinforce  his good manners. Yes, that. In addition, his teacher told me that he also says, “Thank you,” which was new to me. But sure enough, I’ve heard him say it a couple of times.

Granted, when he says “Thank you” it comes out more like “Cha-Choo!” but the context is right. His teacher also told me that he’s constantly saying, “Daddy at work” which was also new to me for a number of reasons. I don’t think I’d heard him utter a 3-word sentence. Kelly later told me that they were working on that Monday when they both had the day off and I was stuck in the office. All of his little friends will think I’m a workaholic.

Beyond that, he has really got his animals down. He says, “animal” when he’s not sure what else to call it. (Of course, it comes out as “amimal.”) But he can say “puppy” and “lion” very clearly. And if you ask him what a lion says, he’ll say “ROOOOAR!” He can say “kitty”, “duck”, “bird”, and “elle” which is his was of saying “elephant”. He can say essential words like “cookie”, “candy”, “soda”, and “juice”. (Really, he does have a healthy diet, vocabulary to the contrary.) He knows just about everything in the house, “door”, “window”, “kitchen”, “bathroom”, “bedroom”, “shower”.

Recognizing all of these words is one things, but he has been putting them together into sentences. And not only that, he’s going from abstractions to the real thing. For instance, there is a painting of a flower at one end of the upstairs hallway. When we walk up to his room, we name all kinds of items we pass by and a few months ago, I pointed to the picture and said, “Flower”. Since then, when I point to it he’s gotten very good at saying “flower” very clearly. Last Sunday I picked up some roses at the grocery store for Kelly and she put them in a vase. When the Z-man saw them on the kitchen table, he pointed at them and said, “Flower!” That impressed me considering they don’t look much like the picture of the flower on the wall.

Other than that, he is his usual jovial, fun-loving self. He can say “TV”, “Spongebob”, “Mickey”, “Timmy” and name other cast members of the shows he likes to watch. He is very big on all kinds of vehicles: cars, trains, planes, boats. Watching a replay of the shuttle launch last night, he grabbed my hand, pointed to the TV and said, “Daddy, eh-pane! EH-PANE! Eeeeerrrrrrrr!” I read to him every night and at this point, I can hardly wait to start reading some simple science fiction stories to him. There are lots of “eh-panes” in those yarns!

Using words

My friend Monica used the word “prophylactic” in its classical sense (meaning “preventative”) the other day and it got me thinking about using words and the flack I occasionally take for my vocabulary. When you read a lot, you can’t avoid learning lots of words. When you write, it’s an occupational hazard. And it just so happens that I am a fan of words and have a natural attraction to them. Yet if I am in a meeting at work and use a word like “opprobrious”, it can stop the meeting cold, which surprises me. Didn’t anyone else in the room ever take the SATs?  I generally get one of two reactions:

  1. The oooh, that’s an impressive word, I’m going to have to look that up, reaction; OR
  2. Well what the hell does that mean and why don’t you just say what it means instead of using a fancy word. Force me to go look something up online, boy I’ll tellya…

And it often seems like I get the second reaction much more frequently than the first. The fact is that I try to use the most appropriate word to convey my meaning. But more to the point, English has a lot of words and way back when I took the SATs, it seemed like I had to memorize all of them. Not one to waste an experience, I kind of made a promise to myself that I wasn’t simply going to learn all of these words for the sake of a test and then forget them the next day. I was going to use them, by god! If the producers of standardized tests think that I should know the meanings of words like “meretricious” and “contumely”, well, then I was not only going to know them, but use them. And serves them right, too, for forcing them on me in the first place.

Still, it seems like I often get a negative reaction to using a full vocabulary, as if using the words you learn is a sign of pretentiousness or something. To me it is simply a sign of memorization, no different from the fellow who can reel off baseball statistics from memory. No one complains about that guy.

The one place where I am more careful about my vocabulary is in my writing, but in that case, it is more due to the fact that written English is a different beast from spoken English, and in fiction, some of the words that I would use in conversation would only serve to confuse the story.

Anyway, I applaud Monica for her sagacity in diction the other day. I wish more people enjoyed words as much as we do.

Two new phrases

The Little Man’s vocabulary is expanding by the minute. Two new multi-word phrases emerged just this evening. The first is “Help, please!” We taught him this as an alternative to whining. He likes playing with the vacuum cleaner and not five minutes after learning the phrase, he said, “Help, please!” when he couldn’t get a little door on the vacuum open. All of the sudden, he’s using it more and more.

Tonight is bath night, and before dinner, I mentioned a bath to the Little Man. He seemed completely neutral. But after dinner, out of the blue, he ran up to me in the kitchen and said, “Daddy, shower!”

I said, “Do you want to take a shower?”


“Okay!” So we took a shower and he loved it.

His teacher at school says he knows the name of every kid in the class and that there is one girl, a few days younger than him, that he is particularly fond of. He always tries to sit near her. Apparently, he has a girlfriend.