Monthly Archives: July 2018

About Condoms

Because this blog is about the English language, just about any topic can be adapted to fit. Today we shall speak of condoms. My reference book is A Browser’s Dictionary (and Native’s Guide to the Unknown American Language), compiled by John Ciardi.

Ciardi states that “the first to deal with this word was Capt. Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London, 1785.” Here is Grose’s definition:

Cundum. The dried gut of a sheep, worn by men in the act of coition, to prevent venereal infection; said to have been invented by one Colonel Cundum. These machines were long prepared and sold by a matron of the name Phillips at the Green Canister, in Half-moon St., in the Strand. That good lady having acquired a fortune, retired from business, but learning that the town was not well served by her successor, she, out of a patriotic zeal for the public welfare, returned to her occupation, of which she gave notice by divers hand-bills in circulation in the year 1776.

Ciardi then notes, “What Grose is really saying is that the old bag sold her business and then set up competitive shop again, ruining the poor fool to whom she had sold out.”

My note: I’m not sure what Grose meant by “machines,” and I find it interesting that he considered condoms useful for preventing STDs but said nothing about their contraceptive function.

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Writing Rules Worth Following

Whether you tweet or send emails or do any other kind of writing, DO NOT WRITE IN ALL CAPS, do not capitalize Random Words because you think that Adds more Emphasis, and DO NOT use excessive punctuation!!!!!!!!!

Not that I’m thinking of anyone in particular.

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Do You Have an Accent?

Depending on what part of the country (any country) you grew up in, you have an accent, often recognizable by others, who are able to place you with varying degrees of accuracy. In the United States, people may be able to tell you are from the Midwest or the South, while others are able to be more specific: Minnesota or Alabama. Still others—perhaps related to Henry Higgins in G.B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion or in the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, which was based on the play—may be able to trace your linguistic origin to East Minneapolis or Birmingham.

Everyone has an accent. After all,what is unaccented English (or Spanish or Lao or Urdu)? When I was in grad school at UCLA, I stepped into an elevator and the man already in it asked me what floor I wanted.”Three, please,” I said. Immediately, he asked me what part of New York I was from. I didn’t realize my accent was so recognizable. My late mother-in-law, who had a strong New York accent to my ears, was certain she didn’t. After all, she insisted, “I’ve been in Califawnia faw fawty-faw yee-uhs.” I rest my case.

The way we speak depends on the first language in our childhood home, as well as on socio-economic factors, ethnicity, education, geography, and social class. So how can there be a way of speaking in any language that is unaccented? However, a strong non-native accent can stand in the way of comprehension on the part of listeners. As a teacher of English as a Second Language, I recognized that many of my students were difficult to understand; their heavy accents could hold them back. So we worked on pronunciation that did not eliminate their native accent but did make it more comprehensible. In no case did I ever tell students not to speak in their native language at home or among others from their home countries. That language was an intrinsic and valuable part of who they were.

The fact remains that some accents are prized and even imitated while others are looked down upon. Who doesn’t love a British or Italian accent? But if a person has an accent that is considered undesirable, that person might face discrimination in housing or employment. However, in America it is unusual to hear a newscaster (called, much more accurately, a “newsreader” in Great Britain) speak with a British, much less an Italian accent. What you are likely to hear is a neutral accent without definite geographical markers. Yet it still is an accent. Worldwide, according to one estimate, more than 50 million people speak English as a second language, so what in the world does a “native English accent” sound like?

You have an accent. I have an accent. Everyone has an accent.


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Nelson Mandela, From the Dock (1964)


t_500x300.jpg  I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


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African Proverbs


I’ve been browsing through Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and came across the following African proverbs. All were unfamiliar to me. What do you think the purpose of a proverb might be?

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Haste, haste, has no blessing.

To the person who seizes two things, one always slips from his grasp.

The lie has seven endings.

Goodness sold itself, badness flaunted itself about.

Speak silver, reply gold.

The prayer of the chicken hawk does not get him the chicken.

Wisdom is not bought.

Not even God is wise enough.

Leave a log in the water as long as you like; it will never be a crocodile.

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What You Can Get at Trader Joe’s

For those of you who do not have a Trader Joe’s in your community, that is unfortunate. I have two of them no more than a five-minute drive from home. If I were to move away, they would likely have to close. Or so it seems to me.

Yesterday I stopped by my TJ’s to pick up “a few things”— you know how that goes. In the produce area, three employees were having a very serious discussion about whether to use lie or lay in a sentence. They were confused. After a minute, I somewhat hesitantly said I was an English teacher, and they seemed glad to see me. (Crazy, I know.) I then explained the words’ distinct uses and how each one is conjugated. When I explained  the past participle of lie, which is lain (as in I have lain in the hammock every day this summer), their jaws dropped. About five shoppers had gathered with my mini-class, and it was all I could do to keep from laughing. I swear, you can find anything at TJ’s, even a wacko English teacher.

In case you’re wondering about the differences between lie and lay, here you go:

I’m guessing that within 10 years the distinctions between these two words will have disappeared. But until July 2028, you might consider sticking to the following rules.

LIE (we’re not going to deal with the situation in which the truth is ignored)—Lie means to lie down, to rest or recline. Every day after lunch, I lie down. I don’t lay down. I lay something down.

LAY means to put or place: Every day when I lie down, I lay my head on my pillow.

That sentence covers the present tense of both verbs. It gets a little sticky when you go into past tenses:

LIE in the past tense is (wait for it) LAY. Yesterday after lunch, I lay down. In the present tense you lie down, but in the past tense you lay down! Remember, I don’t make these rules up; I just teach them.

It gets even worse: in the past perfect tense, when has, had or have is part of your verb, you need LAIN. (I bet you’ve never written or spoken that word in your life—but it’s not too late to start.) Every day after lunch, I always have lain down.

As for the past tenses of LAY, here is what you want: Yesterday I laid my head on my pillow. I always have laid my head on my pillow.

If your head is aching, perhaps you should lay your head on your pillow.

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George Orwell on Language


George Orwell (whose given name was Eric Blair) wrote a prescient essay in 1946, called Politics and the English Language. We live in a polarized political climate, and no matter which side you stand on, these two quotations from Orwell’s essay will likely be ones you can agree with. (And yes, it’s fine to end sentences with prepositions.) I urge you to read the entire essay. I doubt you’ll ever forget it.

• Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

• The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

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