Words and Language

This is where I write about the way that words are used today in the English language, or about language in general. I only know English (well, I understand a bit of Spanish and French) but I only speak English. However, I do know English very well, so I feel qualified to talk about it pretentiously. This is where I do that.

The Bane of Work Life in 2015 - Organizational Standards

  • Posted on: 18 November 2015
  • By: Jay Oyster

Working in corporate America, one is surrounded every day by the endless jargon of endless variants of organizational standards theory. In the manufacturing world, it was all ISO 9000. In the IT world, everything is all about ITIL. And everywhere you go, you see the religion of Jack Welch, the high holy Six Sigma. And there are sub-variants for particular areas of operation. Project management has Agile and Scrum. Purchasing has LEAN. Every department has a well-branded theory these days.

Do you know what the point is of all of this? It's really quite simple. It's to get people to do what they would have done anyway if anybody had any common sense.

It's NOT 'AT'!!

  • Posted on: 11 August 2015
  • By: Jay Oyster

I asked my wife this morning, "Do you think I'm a Sheldon? Sometimes, I worry that I'm a Sheldon."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Well, it's just  . . . the stuff I worry about. It's crazy. Why do I care about this stuff?!"

"No, you're not a Sheldon. But what kind of stuff?"

Here's the thing. Something linguistic has been bugging the HELL out of me for about 10 years now, and I'm just about reaching a breaking point with this one. It's about the '@' symbol. You know . . . the one in all of your email addresses. The one that starts off all of your Twitter handles?  Yeah, that thing. It is NOT, I repeat, FREAKING NOT . ."the AT symbol"! It is, quite obviously and quite emphatically, an 'EACH AT symbol! It's a rate, not a location, dammit! How do I know this? Because I saw it when I was a boy. If you went into a grocery store or a farmer's market, anything priced by the piece, such as fruit or cans or canteloupes, they were all priced for 'each'. The normal abbreviation on signs was 'ea.'  So, apples were 10¢ ea.  Watermelons would be 20¢ ea.

And the '@' symbol didn't exist on most old typewriters of the time. It started out as an accounting symbol . . . and let's be clear: 14 white wall tires @ $25 means something quite different if @ means 'at' rather than 'each at'. If it's the former, you only have to pay $25 and you get 14 tires. That's quite a deal! However, if you actually know what you're talking about, and you know that it's actually the latter, you realize that you must pay $350 to get those 14 tires. And I guarantee, back in 1972, NOBODY thought it meant 'AT'. . . except, evidently, the computer nerds who were busily inventing network protocols such as email and TCP/IP.

You saw the symbol mostly on hand-lettered signs, so the lack of a typewriter key didn't matter, and the shortening of 'each at' by placing the 'a' inside the giant 'e' was a great shorthand. Of course '@' means 'each at'! What are you all thinking?!

But now, it's sort of a lost cause. To quote one of my favorite philosophers, 'When the avalanche has started, it's too late for the pebbles to vote.'  So now that every email is joe.schmoe AT blahblahblah DOT com, and there's a show on television actually called '@Midnight', I just shake my head in astonishment. And you send messages to your Twitter mates by sending it '@JoeSchmoe', which frankly sounds kind of rude and boorish. Wouldn't you want to send it 'TO' Joe Schmoe? But I guess we're just wingin' those messages AT each other's faces now. So I guess AT is what you do these days. It's just . . . I do not think that word means what you think it means. But you're all so certain of it. You silly gits.

Trends in Poetry

  • Posted on: 13 March 2014
  • By: Jay Oyster

Revolution through poetry, or constant revolutions within poetryI have historically been a voracious reader, particularly of novels. But as I've reached my late 40s with young children in the house, I've found that I have little time, or more importantly, mental bandwidth, to read much. What I do read is usually in a very narrow bandwidth of trusted authors and easy-to-digest styles. Until he died, I read Robert Parker's mystery novels. Until the series ended, I read JK Rowling's Harry Potter books. The last trusted source I have right now is LE Modesitt's fantasy fiction. I read it because, a) it's escapist, but b) it's also grown-up fiction. It's fantasy with the concerns and knowledge of a person who has dealt with real world power struggles and real-world politics. I've taken lessons from many of his books on how to operate in a modern corporation, and how to interpret what's actually going on in the divisive politics of 21st century America. 

I also occasionally stop by Mr. Modesitt's own personal blog from time to time to see if he's published a take on current events. His is certainly not the only voice I read about such things, but it's a known voice and I often agree with his thinking. Or it makes me think a bit differently about it.  Recently, he wrote about a dance recital that he and his wife attended, and at which he was given a poetry magazine. His take on both the dance and the poetry is that both forms have gotten looser over the past 50 years, and it hasn't been good for either. I don't disagree.

This started me thinking.

Grammar Peeve: CBS News Needs to Hone Its Blurb Writing Skills

  • Posted on: 6 March 2014
  • By: Jay Oyster

I have lots of pet peeves about people using words wrong. But I know many people are just annoyed by people pointing out such things, so I almost always keep it to myself. Plus, you always risk having your own typos and foibles pointed out in response. But this morning, I happened across an example of one of my most peevishly pet peeves in such a prominent location, by people whose job it is to know better, and I just simply cannot hold it in.

CBS Article blurb from their website, 3/6/2014Take a look at this article headline and blurb from the front page of this morning's CBS News website:  "College Board unveils sweeping changes to SATs". That's fine. It's the blurb beneath that is the problem.

I've heard this over and over in recent years in conversation, and more and more in print. And here we have it, in a story about educational standards, no less, on the front page of one of the big network news agencies. HONE and HOME cannot be used interchangeably! 

2013 - The Good and the Bad

  • Posted on: 2 January 2014
  • By: Jay Oyster

2013 - a Year of ExtremesPersonally, 2013 wasn't that bad, particularly compared to the Hell that were 2011 and 2012. But from a more global and holistic perspective, 2013 was one heck of a rocky ride. Just in an effort to capture some of my thoughts about what just happened to us all, I thought I'd try to capture my view of what was particularly good and particularly sucky about the 13th year of this latest millennium. I think I'll talk about many of these things in more detail in other posts, so I'm just going to skim the topics.

Do you want the good or the bad first?


The Twibill, the English World's Besaigue

  • Posted on: 22 April 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

I recently read (and reviewed) Maurice Pommier's children's bookabout woodworking called GrandPa's Workshop. It's a charming book and it introduced me to the uniquely French tool called the besaigue. To a modern American woodworker's eyes, it's an odd, ungainly looking tool, but after hearing how it might be used, I've come to see how it could actually be useful in the right situation. A besaigue, pronounced as best as I can determine as Bay-say-gwe', is a long, double-tipped chisel, with a mortising chisel on one end, and a broad, flat chisel or firmer chisel on the other end. In the middle is a long rod with a handle attached at the midpoint. The purpose of the tool is for timber framing. The long end not being used is placed on the shoulder, and the handle is used to pare down or punch down into a beam to create a mortise. From other reading, it seems to have been commonly used up until perhaps the 17th century along with a large brace and bit to create round-ended mortise slots for structural timbers.

Promotional artwork for Lost Art Press edition of Grandpa's Workshop showing the besaigue in handFrench Style besaïgue from the collection of the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva


French style besaigue, Ethonography Museum of GenevaWhat I didn't learn from this reading, however, is whether or how this tool was ever used in the English-speaking world.  

Embarrassment for Others

  • Posted on: 21 March 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

Planes, Trains and Automobiles movie posterYou know that feeling you get when someone on television does something really embarrassing, only they don't seem to realize it, but you feel embarrassed?  You don't? Well, some of us do.

My wife is always making fun of the fact that I get embarrassed for people on a show we're watching. I'll even leave the room if it goes on for a couple minutes. I used to think I was the only one who had this experience, until we realized that our son Liam has it, too.  That was slightly comforting, although I did feel a bit bad for passing along such a stupid trait to my son.  

I've always had this thing, whatever you call it. I remember watching movies back when I was a teenager, or in college, and shrinking down into the seat while other people were laughing at the antics on the screen. The John Candy/Steve Martin movie from the 80s 'Planes, Trains, and Automobiles' was a particularly notorious example of this for me. The whole film was one uncomfortable situation after another. It's gotten worse in recent years as this form of humor seems to be more and more prevalent. Last week, my wife suggested we go see the movie "Identity Thief" because we both really like Sookie.  (OK, WE know her as Sookie from Gilmore Girls. Everybody else knows her as Melissa McCarthy.  She's Sookie, dammit.)  I said, "No! That's just Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with Sookie playing the John Candy role!"  My wife is used to me, and she's a saint, so she didn't even blink. 


I've found out that, although there is no word in English for this feeling, there is one in German. It's sort of the friendly cousin of shadenfreud. The Germans call it 'fremdschämen'. It's a Denecanome!  (A missing word)  There was a great posting about this a couple years back on the Quotulatiousness blog by an English guy named Nicholas. It's also listed as one of 14 words that don't exist in English on the Mental Floss blog. They also suggest the Finnish word Myötähäpeä for this concept. So I'm not crazy! There are others of us. However, I may have some sort of unknown German or Finnish ancestry I need to track down now.  (I kid, my family tree is of course liberally infested with Germans.) 

So, "Fremdschäm", is the feeling of embarrassment one feels at the actions of someone else, but NOT because something they do makes you look bad. It's purely an empathetic thing. The transliteration is not actually 'friend-shame', but I'm going to think of it that way. (That would be freundshäm.) A commenter at the Mental Floss site suggests that it's just something experienced by Capricorns, since they're such sensitive souls.  The fact that I think astrology is bullcrap unfortunately has no bearing on the fact that I am, in fact, a Capricorn. Dammit.

So if you're with a buddy or a spouse, and they slink out of the room when you watch an old episode of The Office, or they get red-faced while you are mightily enjoying the latest episode of American Idol or The Voice, it's because they're suffering from fremdshäm.   The fact that they were also likely born in late December or early January to either German or Finnish parents should not be mentioned. It'll just embarrass them more.

There oughta be a word . . .

  • Posted on: 20 March 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

A missing thingFor many years now . . . it has to be going on 25 at least . . . I've thought that there ought to be a word in the English language for a thing or a concept with no name. It's the idea of something that doesn't currently have a word to describe it, but probably ought to.  Before we all knew that an aglet was that plastic piece on the end of your shoelaces, that plastic thing was one of these things, Then someone came along and invented the word. All right, it probably was a word in the shoe industry for decades, but nobody outside knew about it.  

But there are lots of examples of actual missing words. An infinite number,if you think about it. There are specific potential words about all of the things in the universe for which we have never even thought. What do you call the act of snowshoeing across the North Pole  . . . of Mars?  What do you call that glowing blue fish that only exists at the bottom of the Marianas Trench and only comes out every 10 years for mating, and which we've never seen? What do you call the top of your foot?  What do you call something that only looks good from far away? (I guess that one would be 'Layogenic' in Tagalog' (Thanks to Mental Floss for that one.)  What do you call that sudden desire to giggle when something tragic happens and your brain goes into shock and doesn't know how to react? What's the word for that mess created by a two year old when eating spaghetti? THAT should have a word.  'Mess' just doesn't do it justice.