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Oh, my word!

After spending time in Britain this summer, I didn’t return with an accent, but I did collect some new vocabulary.


Changing of the Guard, Buckingham Palace

It’s true that North American English resembles its British parents, but as children will, we Canucks and Yanks have insisted on forging our own identity. Words and phrases differ, so “translation” may be required when visiting the land of our linguistic forefathers.

Take vests, for instance. Who knew that in England the word refers to men’s undershirts? Not I – until I wandered through a Marks & Spencer department store. I also discovered that when something is impressive – a painting of Shakespeare created while he was alive, for instance – it’s “brilliant,” like a star shining above, perhaps. When I was peckish in mid-afternoon, it was time for a break for “cream tea,” aka a cup of tea and a scone served with clotted cream and jam. What a perfect way to take the edge off my hunger!

There were also times when I found myself reaching into my magician’s linguistic hat for a rabbit and pulling out a toad instead. It was both amusing and embarrassing.

I seemed to have most of my difficulties reaching for the correct word while travelling on trains. En route to Edinburgh, I automatically ordered chips in the refreshments car, even though I know the British word for potato chip is crisp. It earned me an admonishment from the server that I “ought to know better by now.” Really? No quarter given after only a month’s time?


At the border

Even the cleaning staff on board got into the act. I’d eaten a sandwich and my “crisps” during the journey, but didn’t see a place to discard the wrappings. As I was collecting my luggage and the detritus of my meal at journey’s end, two men armed with a huge plastic bag walked by. I hailed them excitedly and asked if it was a trash bag they were carrying. They gave me a haughty look and told me the bag was for “rubbish.” Oops!

Faux pas notwithstanding, it’s these language differences that add spice to travelling. The country you’re visiting may look superficially like your own, but words can remind you that you’re far from home.


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Watch your (election) language!

On Nov. 8, voters and interested onlookers will be glued to their television sets to watch the outcome of what has been one of the nastiest American presidential campaigns in recent memory. It has set new lows in terms of intelligent discourse and in no-holds-barred attacks on opponents. election2

Rather than descend to those depths ourselves, let’s take a look at election-related words. It’s time to refresh our memories about some of the terms the pundits will use as coverage begins:

  • Blue State, Red State – Although it sounds like the title of a Dr. Seuss book, these are standard U.S. election terms, visual cues to voting tendencies and actual outcomes. Blue states are those whose population tends to vote for Democratic candidates and will be coloured blue on the election maps if Hillary Clinton wins them. Red states are those whose population generally votes for Republicans and will be coloured red on the election maps if Donald Trump captures them.
  • Electoral College — This process is the toughest for people – outsiders and Americans, too – to comprehend. The U.S. president and vice-president are not elected directly by popular vote. Instead, voters cast their ballot for electors who represent the candidates. In each state and the District of Columbia, political parties propose slates of electors to represent them.

The number of electors allocated to each state is based on population and equals the number of senators plus members of the House of Representatives for the state; the number of U.S. electors equals 538, the total of senators and representatives in Congress. The winner must receive votes from 270 electors, a majority. In all states except Maine and Nebraska, the candidate who receives the majority of popular votes wins all the electors.

Although the election is held in November, the electors do not meet until January to cast their votes, making the election results technically unofficial until that date.

  • Lame Duck – an elected official who is still serving out his/her term, even though his/her successor has been elected.
  • Popular Vote – The total votes cast by voters in the one-person, one-vote system. In the U.S., a presidential  candidate can win a majority of the popular vote, but not be elected president.
  • Split- and Straight-Ticket Voting – A split ticket refers to an individual ballot containing a vote for a candidate from one party for president and a candidate from a second party for legislator. A straight ticket refers to a ballot containing votes for one party only.

With these terms in hand, you can confidently enter any election discussion that arises — and there will be many in the coming days!

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Batter Up, Word Wonks!

It’s October, and to baseball fans and the Boys of Summer (i.e., baseball players) this month is synonymous with the baseball postseason – and this year, that’s especially true in Toronto. The playoffs and the World Series are the culmination of a hard-fought, six-month campaign – or, what often seems to non-enthusiasts like a painfully long, 162-game season.BaseballImage1.jpg

In honour of the Toronto Blue Jays — and the other teams unlucky enough to face them in the playoffs – let’s look, once again, at some of the oddball terminology used in baseball, with thanks to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary:

  • Boys in Blue – The umpires. The term was borrowed from the nickname given both to Union soldiers during the American Civil War and to modern police forces, based on their blue uniforms.
  • Ducks on the Pond – Runners on base. The term was introduced to baseball in 1939 by a broadcaster, Arch McDonald, himself colourfully called the Barnum of the Bushes.
  • Four Bagger – A home run. The term derives from the necessity for the hitter to circle the bases and touch all four bases – which are referred to as bags — before he scores the run.
  • Money Player – A player who performs at his best when there is a lot on the line.
  • Moon Shot – A home run. This slang term merged perfectly with baseball’s penchant for statistics in 1986 when statisticians determined that former Philadelphia Phillies slugger Mike Schmidt did his best hitting when the moon was full.
  • Speed Merchant – A particularly fast runner who is likely to steal bases. The term can be traced back to Baseball magazine in 1910.
  • The Mendoza Line – Pity poor Mario Mendoza. The shortstop, who played eight years total for three teams in the major leagues and had a career batting average of .215, low by professional standards. The term is actually used to refer to any major leaguer whose batting average is below .200, embarrassing for any pro.

And, last but not least, for Blue Jays fans:

  • The Mistake on the Lake – Cleveland, referring to a city that was generally, until this year’s NBA basketball championship, unlucky in sports. Canadians can only hope the bad luck continues!

Let’s go, Blue Jays!


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Talking Rio: Olympic Sports Terminology

The 2016 Summer Olympics are in full swing in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and Canada is busy cheering its athletes to the podium. The temptation to ignore everything else and watch the action 24/7 is overwOlympic rings logohelming; luckily, many Canadians take a vacation in August!

Join me for an Olympic tour of some sports terms that may help clear that look of confusion from your eyes:

  • Dig – No, it’s not an insult aimed at your buddy; it’s a volleyball term that refers to the ability to prevent a ball hit by the opposing team to touch the ground in your own court.
  • False start – In a track or a swimming contest, this term refers to a competitor who begins moving before the starting bell, generally leading to automatic disqualification from the race.
  • Heat – Yes, it’s hot in Rio, but we’re not referring to temperature here. A heat is a preliminary round of competition held to whittle the field to the strong competitors. Generally, only a couple of entrants in each heat advance to the next round.
  • Ledecky Slam – Winning the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-metre freestyle swimming races at one meet. It is named after Katie Ledecky, the 19-year old American swimming phenom, who has accomplished it .
  • Omnium – A multiple race event in track cycling (e.g., time trial, individual pursuit). Cyclists participate in all the events and earn points for their finishes in each. The overall points leader at the completion of the events is the winner.
  • Pike position – A diving position where the body is bent at the waist, but the legs are straight.
  • Repechage — Second chance. A term used in rowing and cycling. Participants who don’t automatically qualify for the next round of competition by placing well in their heats have another shot at qualification.
  • Penny – We all know soccer greats Pele and Ronaldo, but now Canada has its own single-moniker athlete: young Penny Oleksiak, the 16-year-old swimmer who earned four medals in Rio and is now the country’s most-decorated athlete at one Summer Games.

The 2016 Olympics continue through Aug. 21. Don’t miss the fun – or the chance to impress your friends with your knowledge of sports nomenclature!

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The OED Celebrates Canada — Word(s) of Wisdom

Q. Which quarterly event causes rejoicing among avid readers and prolific writers? Hint: It’s not the solstice/equinox combo!

A. The Oxford English Dictionary’s announcement of new words and meanings to be added to the lexicon.

I understand that caring about new words and usage officially classifies me as a geek, but I’mCanada_flag-9 proud to wear that banner for such an interesting cause – especially since a couple of Canadian words made the grade, just in time for Canada Day.

HomerSimpsonYes, in addition to adding twerking  (Hello, Miley Cyrus!) and meh (D’oh, Simpsons!), the folks at the august OED have included some Canadian terms this time around. Inukshuk makes its inaugural appearance five years after the Vancouver Olympics used the image in its logo, defined as “a structure of rough stones stacked in the form of a human figure.”

From francophone Canada comes depanneur (without the accent – this is Britain), a convenience store. Last, but not least, is stagette, which in the States referred to a woman attending a function without a partner, but in Canada means a party given for a woman about to be married.

Being Canadian, those words were familiar to me, but words from other cultures will take me a while to absorb. The South Asian dhaba, for example, is a roadside food stall or restaurant, and the Tagalog word, barkada, means a night out with friends. Apparently, if I can’t afford to travel the world, I can simply travel by dictionary!

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The “Berra” Best of Yogi — Word(s) of Wisdom

Yogi Berra, the Hall-of-Fame Yankees catcher, was also known by his teammates and his fans as something of a cockeyed philosopher. Some of his famous observations on life were paradoxes, contradicting themselves, while others just didn’t seem to add up, either mathematically or logically. Yet Yogiisms, as they are commonly known, generally bring a smile to the faces of those who hear them.Yogi_Berra_1956

Some of his folk wisdom has stuck and become a part of our modern lexicon. Which sports fan, watching a team fall behind, hasn’t quoted Yogi, saying, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over?” It’s a statement that seems obvious, until you think about the meaning: Don’t give up on the team until the last play, because miracles happen. And who could disagree with Yogi’s sentiment that “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too?”

The thoughtful Yogi, however, is often forgotten in favour of the confusing Yogi, with amusing or paradoxical statements such as:

  • “Baseball is 90 per cent mental — the other half is physical.”
  • “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
  • “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
  • “You can observe a lot by just watching.”
  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

As wise as a Hindu yogi? You decide.

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What’s “nu”? — Word(s) of Wisdom

As a writer and an avid reader, I like to think that I have a reasonably good vocabulary. Most commonly used English words are recognizable to me, and even if I can’t define a word precisely, I usually have a sense of what it means. Unless I’m reading an essay by the late columnist William F. Buckley, who prided himself on his vast vocabulary, I’m generally on familiar turf. (Perhaps it’s a sign that I need a new Word-a-Day calendar!) So, it’s always a pleasant surprise when I come across a word that I haven’t seen before.

The word that recently sent me running to my dictionary is nugatory. Webster pronounces it as NOO-ge-tory, while the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary prefers NUH-ge-turry: Take your pick. When I found that it is defined as trifling or worthless, I was delighted. It’s a perfect word to work into conversation: “I just have a few nugatory tasks to take care of, and then I’m free to spend the evening reading a good book, or “Don’t worry about overlooking such a nugatory item.”

So, if someone asks you what’s new today, you have the perfect answer: nugatory!

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Weekly Word(s) of Wisdom, Feb. 24, 2015

Jargon! It’s the bane of an editor’s existence. Writers are often the culprits, but broadcasters aren’t immune, as today’s example illustrates.

In fact, it was CBC Radio’s Ontario Today program that suggested this week’s jargon term to beware: Unpack. The host used it in promoting an upcoming discussion of Ontario’s new sex education curriculum.

Yes, folks, the verb that was once used largely in conjunction with suitcases is now commonly employed as a synonym for explain, or explore in greater detail. I shudder.

Please, literate colleagues everywhere, cease and desist from using unpack in this fashion. Return it to the realm where it belongs: among moving boxes stacked in the living room or suitcases that are calling out to you in your suite at a warm, sunny beach resort. (It is February, after all.)

Edit yourself, before those of us with red pencils and track-changes features are forced to do it for you!

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Making the Case for Social Media: Six Pixels of Separation

In today’s business world, if your online activities don’t extend much beyond using email, it’s time for a dose of Mitch JoelImage.

Joel is a Canadian digital marketing guru who has advised Google, among organizations, and was named the “Rock Star of Digital Marketing” in 2006 by Marketing magazine. He is also president of Twist Image, a digital marketing and communications agency, and author of two books about online marketing, including Six Pixels of Separation: Everyone is Connected. Connect Your Business to Everyone, a book that seeks to lead readers out of the wilderness and into the digital age.

For Joel, it’s a “no brainer”: be a part of the digital community or be left behind. You don’t have to struggle towards this brave new world on your own, however. Joel is there to hold your hand, step-by-step, explaining the tools that are available and the most effective ways to employ them to get a return on your investment.

Although Joel wrote this book in 2008, it is still relevant and offers a good introduction to the approach required for corporations and individuals to successfully navigate the world of online marketing. He maintains – correctly – that there is a much more vibrant two-way conversation taking place between brands and their customers than ever before. Without downplaying the hard work involved in engaging in this conversation, Joel encourages readers with real-world examples of those who have successfully negotiated the changing marketplace.

Joel believes that making a mark in the digital world requires bravery and a willingness to do things differently, yet he believes there are sound principles that help ensure success, such as the 5 C’s of Entrepreneurship 2.0 (connecting, creating, conversations, community and commerce) With his assistance, readers will be armed with the information and the confidence they need to develop the necessary strategies and tactics for making their mark in today’s digital world. Joel is a positive, gentle guide into the unknown. 

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Where there’s a Will, there’s a quote

William Shakespeare

I added a board of notable quotes to my new Pinterest site this week, all part of a homework project for my social media marketing course. As I sifted through possible choices, I was once again struck by how many quotable phrases owe their origins to the renowned playwright, William Shakespeare. It is quite remarkable to see the effect that a man who was born 450 years ago  —  Stratford-upon-Avon will be hosting birthday celebrations this year — has had on the English language.

In his 52 years, Shakespeare produced about 38 plays, more than 150 sonnets and a couple of long narrative poems. His prolific output has provided many lines that have made their way into our day-to-day conversation, sometimes humorously – who among us hasn’t put a hand to forehead and dramatically proclaimed, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” mimicking Hamlet’s famous soliloquoy? Some have become the stuff of refrigerator magnets and posters, but are no less powerful as a result. Twelfth Night’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them” is a perfect example.

Other quotes have become the stuff of common wisdom, oft quoted as commentary on the general travails of life and love.  Shakespeare’s words from As You Like It ring most true when we’re feeling cynical: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” The advice contained in Hamlet to “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend,” is as applicable today as it was in Shakespeare’s time, and the words from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The course of true love never did run smooth,”  still ring true.

There are those who argue that William Shakespeare never actually existed, that his plays were actually written by the Earl of Essex or Sir Francis Bacon. Let’s leave that for the scholars to ponder. The fact is that whoever the author of the work attributed to Shakespeare might be, he was a prodigious talent and one whose gift for language and his understanding of the human condition resonates through the ages.

To hear Shakespeare’s words come alive, a visit to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, is a wonderful way to spend a spring or summer day. For a quicker trip, you can celebrate his words virtually.

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