Category Archives: language

Shock news – I’m female

I am, apparently, female. But not very. Especially not when I am writing about my eggs.

Blog Female Percentage Male Percentage
There should be a special level of hell… 55% 45%
… a woman’s work is never done 52% 48%
Saved by a meme 53% 47%
Migraines II 62% 38%
Summer flowers, winter mornings 75% 25%
Sofa so good 42% 58%
Amazon, my river of shame 31% 69%
“Aphra Behn racism poems” 55% 45%
Exercise and the placebo feel good factor 55% 45%
Scrambled Eggs 47% 53%
Averages 53% 47%

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. The analysis of my writing style came from Gender Genie.

I feel peeved that my gender is so obvious in what I write, and also peeved that my femininity only just shows through.

There I go, wanting it both ways.


I’m looking forward to December when I don’t have to scrabble round for blog subjects, and I can think more and write less.


For m, and other large values of n

Gosh. I’ve just discovered something.

A whole new word in fact:



Now there was me thinking it was a typo lurking under your finger-tips when you are trying to type imminent. Nothing of the sort. Immanent is another word entirely. Then there is eminent which means well known, and enimen, which happens because white men cannot sing the blues, and M&Ms which are chocolates covered in blue-stuff.

Immanent means ‘inherent in, indwelling’.


Enimen’s fondness for M&Ms and his immanent flair for hip-hop made his eminence imminent.

Try saying that without re-gluing your dentures!

Sign of the times

So where do the doodads go then?

The ‘doodads’? What doodads?

The dot-things. I know there’s dot-things. Where do you put them?

Oh, the diaereses? Over the e.

Over the E? That doesn’t look right.

It’s right.

Hmmm. I’ve never seen it spelled like that before. Over the E?


Not the O?

No. The e at the end. There’s an e at the end. It has diaereses over it.

Oh well. Up to you. If it’s wrong, remember I asked.

Bronte Parsonagë Museum

Buzzword Blingo

Why do people express such a hatred of jargon?

Recently the new CEO of the organisation I work for said Strategy is a word I dislike. I hope it is the word he dislikes and not the concept, otherwise the organisation will end up as a case-study in business school textbooks and I’ll end up looking for work.

The main reason for disliking jargon is that one does not understand it. Here is a list of words I can never remember the meaning of, even though I looked them up in Wikipedia to write this, and even though each has been explained to me more than once:

I guess that tells you as much as you need to know about my interests and my pragmatic approach to them.

A second reason for disliking jargon is that the writer may not understand it. Problematic is an excellent example of this. Does the writer mean beset by problems or do they mean improbable and unlikely? An outcome can be certain but beset by problems – the plane’s crash-landing was problematic, or it can just be unlikely – the question of whether Blair will resign gracefully is very problematic. You end up having to decide whether or not you trust the writer to limit themselves to words they actually understand.

It gets doubly frustrating when one is dealing with concepts for which there is currently no single-word synonym, such as meme, ideolect, dystopia and, yes, strategy. I have read more than one rant recently against the use of the word ‘meme’. Yes, it is over-used. Yes, it is often used by people who don’t know what it means. But there is no other word which means the same thing.

There is a third reason for being afraid of jargon: this when words are used so loosely that anyone can use them for just about anything. This can happen with odd and unexpected words such as percent. I’ve previously mentioned my naivete in thinking that 20% should always mean one fifth of the total, instead of turning up decoratively as the second part of the 80/20 rule.

The main danger, though, is when it is used about abstract and fashionable concepts such as post-modernism and democracy. In fact, each of these denotes an overlapping group of concepts, like a venn diagram of glass-rings left on a pub table at the end of an evening of drunken pontificating. This gives rise to confusion: I might mean a consensus process where all involved have the opportunity to contribute to the debate and the final decision is a compromise agreed by all parties; and you might mean whatever it was that went on in Florida in November 2000. These are both valid uses of the word, but they refer to different processes and outcomes and are based on different assumptions.

Dangerously, Christianity and Islam are two other examples of these. You might understand Christian to refer to someone with mental health problems so confusing that they believe they hear the voice of Jesus in their head, and I might use it when talking about my elderly widowed neighbour who organises jumble sales.

It gets worse: Democracy and strategy are unchallengeable sacred cows, they are universal get-out-of-jail-free cards. It is impossible to criticise any positive statement including the word democracy, and it is almost impossible to challenge any positive statement including the word strategy. To do so is like saying that you think seal-clubbing is a worthwhile and pleasant way for a student to spend their gap-year, or that you think the Queen Mother was a vindictive and sanctimonious manipulator. Those are concepts which are so far outside the perceived wisdom as to be oxymorons, and impossible to think. This, of course, is how Bush and Blair got away with invading Iraq – they used words like a strategy for democracy, put the pea under the cup and swizzled the cups around around a bit and when the one in the middle was lifted we discovered that there never were any WMDs and that there are 3000 civilian deaths there each month now.

Finally of course there are words which are just too seductive not to use. My personal list of these includes: methodology, landscape, domain, and paradigm. I’d like to say I use them in an ironic post-modern kind of way, but unfortunately I have no idea what that particular phrase means. Even more unfortunately, I use them as a kind of short-hand, because if I am talking to colleagues it gets my meaning over quickly and effectively. The thing I like the most about paradigm though, is the way it is spelt.

The challenge to us as communicators is to balance the downsides of using jargon: turning people off, confusing them, irritating them and just plain failing to communicate at all, with the upsides of using the one and only word which sums up our meaning elegantly and accurately without recourse to a sentence or so of explanation.

I guess our CEO feels the same way about strategy as I feel about post-modernism and democracy, that these are Humpty-Dumpty words and because they mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, they end up meaning nothing at all.

You might enjoy fooling around with the following sites. Having spent a couple of hours messing around on them I feel mentally and physically queasy. Entertained, but queasy.

And because only nonsense is nonsense:

Finally, you can lose hours of your life in subversive thought provoking ways here:


There’s a particular kind of sickening and envious delight I feel when I come across words, phrases or even entire poems, which I wish I had written myself. One couplet – written by a South African woman whose name I don’t know but who lives in Stroud – is a good example of this:

Mr Language-man,
let me lick your words…

I would have been shivering with delight if I had written that in my first language. She wrote it in her second.

Another example comes from Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s new album Living with War:

Sister has her headphones on
She hears the music blasting
She sees her brother marchin’ by
Their bond is everlasting
Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963
Watching the flags of freedom flyin’

Now why couldn’t I think of placing a 21st century teenager in a situation where she’s “Listening to Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963”?

Because I’m not Neil Young, I suppose.

Oh to be a linguist, now two point zero’s here….

Don’t you find what’s happening to the written language compelling? It is changing before our eyes, even faster than spoken languages change, and it is impossible to tell what written English will look like in a couple of decades time.

I am not convinced that standards are falling which is the easy and elitist assumption to make. Sure, printed English used to be grammatically correct and impeccably spelled, (unless it was printed by the Gruniad). But this was not because of the journalists’ English teachers. Newspaper offices had shelves of books on correct English to guide their journalists, and even then their writing would go through the ruthless filter of the sub-editor and the compositor, who had books of their own to guide them on the presentation of written English.

Web 2.0 axiomatically provides you with unedited and unfiltered access to what people want to say to you but, as I’ve said, it exposes their illiteracy.

The proportion of literate to illiterate texts we see has changed. We have returned to the Medieval directness of communication not seen since Caxton and the printing press. Now, what you see is what I wrote.

It is going to be interesting to see whether literacy is more valued because it is more needed, and if the written language will take on variances similar to those in the spoken language. There is a doctoral thesis waiting for funding on the subject of txtspk and l33t as dialects.

People already have different voices and standards for instant messaging (where speed is of the essence), for discussion forums (where language is informal and urgent), and for blogs (which are more like show-case pieces). But the written language is changing in other ways, <example purpose=”to illustrate the point”> the use of pseudo-tags in emails, posts or other text </example>. This crosses over. I know of several people who include stage directions in their conversations. *smiles whimsically*

I am trying really hard not to use the word “meme” here.

I guess I am curious about three things:

  • Will literacy be more highly valued by cyber-skiving kids?
  • Will the general standard of literacy be driven down by the sheer volume of illiterate texts we expose ourselves to?
  • To what extent will the written language take on features previously exclusive to spoken languages such as dialect and voice?

Oh to be a linguist now 2.0’s here.