Gender Confusion, Pronoun Style

In today’s gender-sensitive world, I know I am not the only one trying to wrap my head around the new realities of language usage. There are a plethora of words being tossed about as gender-neutral pronouns, but which ones shall I use – if any – in my writing?

The New York Times recently published a story noting that the American Dialect Society, an organization of etymologists, grammarians, lexicographers and linguists, recently named they – in singular pronoun form – as the word of 2015. The society suggests that they is appropriate for situations where someone’s gender is unknown or fluid, as well as for the gender binary individual, a person who doesn’t view gender as only male or female with no gradations (e.g., Mary said that they isn’t ready to take the exam.).

I understand the need for alternatives, but I’m not yet comfortable with the choices available. Using they as a singular pronoun still jangles my ear, although I now see it regularly on Facebook when Suzie or Charlie has updated their profile.

I am also unprepared to commit to other alternatives, such as ze or ey, as suggested by the office of campus life at The American University in Washington, D.C. Staff at AU  have embraced the new reality and taken the step of providing guidance to the university community on pronoun options and usage, but many other institutions lag behind.

Until I see wider uptake and more agreement — Oxford Canadian Dictionary and Canadian Press, I’m talking to you — I’ll undoubtedly follow the existing Canadian Press guidance, which suggests avoiding gender-based pronouns and using the singular they only as a last resort.

The gender revolution is underway. As writer Adrienne LaFrance notes in a recent Atlantic article, … “culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them.” Will your own language usage lead or follow? Do let me know!



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Homonyn Horrors

I’ve talked previously about homonyms – words that sound alike, but have different meanings, such as peer and pier – and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Yet, these errors crop up, time and again, as well-meaning people get confused or don’t realize the limits of their vocabularies.

For a writer/editor, it’s jarring to encounter the misuse of a homonym while reading along in an otherwise well-written story or document. It stops me short and breaks the flow of the narrative; it also frustrates me that someone didn’t catch the mistake before the piece was printed/posted. It shows carelessness or ignorance and reflects poorly on the source.

I come across such words regularly, as much as I wish I didn’t. This week, while MountBakerreading through a brand profile provided by a client, I discovered that James enjoys discovering new flavours that “peak” his taste buds. Oy! Peak is generally used as a noun, not a verb, e.g., climbing to the peak of Mount Baker. The writer actually meant pique, or arouse (curiosity, interest, etc.).

The next day, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and came across an artistically designed, inspirational post from an acquaintance. The sentiment was lovely, but I couldn’t enjoy it fully, because it talked about finding someone to love who “compliments” you. (Hmmm, taken literally, isn’t that a given? Why would you want a lover who insulted you or ignored you?)  Complements, or completes, is the word the author was undoubtedly seeking, and all the work that went into creating the lovely lettering and layout was spoiled by the use of the wrong word.

To what shall I attribute these missteps? A poor educational system? Sloppiness? I know that language is fluid and ever-changing, but mistaken usage isn’t part of that evolution. Let’s get it right!

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Expletive Deleted

Sitting on the subway or walking down the street, I often feel like cringing as I overhear nearby conversations where every other word seems to be “f*#!.”

The tight rein on polite language of decades past has evaporated. Words that once meant a mouth washed out with soap are now part of the everyday vocabulary. I’ve even found myself weakening when I’m upset, but I’m not proud of it. For the New Year, I’m aiming to use more interesting ways of expressing myself.

To find other options, I’ll simply travel back in time to 19th century Britain, where words were colourful without being quite so off colour. The richness of that period’s language never fails to make me smile.


For instance, while singer Carly Simon wouldn’t have had a hit if her song, You’re So Vain, had been titled, You’re a Coxcomb, she would certainly have sent people scrambling for their dictionaries. Conceited or vain is the definition, although the term once meant fool, because the fools (jesters) in the royal retinue wore caps adorned with bells and topped with a piece of red cloth shaped like a cock’s (rooster’s) comb.

Often, said coxcombs speak nothing but fustian — pretentious, pompous language. We’ve all certainly come across people in positions of power who hold forth as if every word is a pearl of wisdom, when we privately consider their words nothing but faradiddles (lies).

One of my personal favourites from the 1800s is rapscallion, which translates to rascal, scamp or rogue. Let it trip off your tongue and enjoy the sound.

So, time travel it is. The next time I’m in high dudgeon (angry) about something, don’t be surprised if I eschew an expletive in favour of balderdash (nonsense). It has a satisfying ring to it as we ring in the New Year.

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The Name Game, Part 2

“A rose is a rose is a rose,” 20th-century author Gertrude Stein famously said, and on a superficial level, that’s true. However, names are also about identity — how you see yourself and how others see you.

It’s an issue that Anna Maria Tremonti, the CBC journalist, explored this week in a CBC radio panel discussion about how to refer to the group that the U.S. and its allies are fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Prime Minister Trudeau calls the group ISIL, while French Prime Minister Francois Hollande calls it Da’esh and the group itself prefers the term ISIS. Why all the confusion? Does it matter?

Yes, it does matter, because a name is an identity. The group, says The Guardian, refers to itself as  the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a name that it uses to proclaim itself a caliphate, or an Islamic state for all Muslims. (The term al-Sham refers to the western portion of the Middle East).

The term ISIL, used by Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama, is the acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the English term for al-Sham. It’s convenient, but it also confers a legitimacy on the group that many people question.

Many of the group’s opponents believe it’s wrong to call the violent group a state because that term generally implies laws and governance. They gravitate toward the appellation preferred by France, Da’ esh, shorthand for the group’s full Arabic name. It has added appeal because its plural form, daw-aish, translates to “bigots who impose their views on others.”

So, a rose may be a rose, but in the case of ISIS /ISIL/Da’ esh, the name you give it may indicate whether it smells sweet to you or not.

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“Letter” Rip: Sharing Your Thoughts

When was the last time you wrote a letter? If you’re like many of us, it’s so long ago that you don’t remember. Today, we have email, e-cards and texting. Why bother with snail mail when you can get in touch with someone in real time? LetterWriting

Recently, my hometown paper carried a story about a woman who is trying to revive this lost art, maintaining that letters are a way to tell someone else that you want to get to know them. It’s a lovely sentiment and one that rang true for many centuries. How else would we get to know many of the talented leaders and creators from times past if it weren’t for their letters to others?

Priya Parmar, author of Vanessa and Her Sister, a novel about painter Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, told an interviewer that her understanding of the two women arose, in large part, from their letters. Many biographers turn to extensive correspondence for clues to the subject’s character.

I wonder if in today’s fast-paced world, where we are caught up in so many obligations, whether we have the time or inclination to truly get to know others. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter and other social media are the substitutes – a chance to share some of our thoughts and feelings, hoping to be heard. However, “Likes” don’t necessarily equal understanding and insight and they are no guarantee of real two-way communication.

The winter holidays are a time of year when we think of those we love and those in our larger circle. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to reach out to one or more of them in an unconventional way – the letter – and start a real conversation. All it costs is our time and a stamp.



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Alphabet Soup and Social Media

Have you ever thought that the world of social media has plunged us deep into a bowl of alphabet soup and left us to climb out as best we can?AlphabetSoup

I’m referring to acronyms, of course – those “words” that are created by taking the first letter of a longer phrase or title and stringing them together. We all use acronyms in our conversations – think NATO, for example (North American Treaty Organization). Sometimes, they are even so well integrated into our language that we forget that the term we’re using is actually an acronym; scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) is one that comes to mind.

The advent of social media and cellphone technology, however, has taken acronyms to whole new level. Given the character limits imposed by Twitter and the need for speed when texting — or Keyboard_Twitterthe reluctance to type more characters than is absolutely necessary – an entire new collection of acronyms has come into being. These acronyms are rarely spoken, because they are generally unpronounceable (LMAO, anyone?), and besides, they were designed for an online medium that is read, not verbalized.

If you are new to texting or to Twitter, you are suddenly assaulted by a barrage of terms that seems foreign and incomprehensible. When I first came across LOL (laugh out loud), I was puzzled. Lots of love? How did that relate to the sentence I had just read?

It’s all a matter of exposure, however. Everyone can play the game – they just need a teacher to guide them through kindergarten, as it were. These days, I can decipher online acronyms with the best of them. IMHO? In my humble opinion, of course. ICYMI? In case you missed it.

Today, when I come across an online acronym I can’t identify, I just say WTH* (What the heck – known in other circles as WTF) and google the translation. If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of online acronyms, it’s time to GWTP* (Get with the program) before you drown in your soup.

*My own creation

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Oy! Such words!

Periodically, I’m struck by how clearly the English language mirrors Canada today: full of influences from the myriad cultures who have adopted it as their new native tongue.

My most recent epiphany came during preparations for a family celebration, when someone suggested we clear a coffee table of all the tchotchkes – or knickknacks — that decorated its surface. Tchotchke is a Yiddish word, and I was reminded about how many words from this language, once widely spoken by European Jews, are currently part of the English lexicon.

Growing up outside New York City, where there is a large Jewish population, I heard Yiddish words thrown into conversation regularly, but I’ve discovered that it isn’t merely a regional or ethnic peculiarity. Many of these terms have become integrated into the English language over the years.

For instance, how often do you schlep (carry or drag) groceries home from the market? When you attend a work function or a cocktail party, it’s natural to schmooze (chat, talk, network) with your co-workers and other guests. Movies are routinely dismissed as schmaltzy (overly sentimental), and common expressions are often given a bit of attitude by adding the common Yiddish prefix, schm; think of fancy-schmancy, for example.

Through the decades, immigrants have added spice to our cultural traditions, and they have also made English more interesting. Adding and embracing new words to our language is what keeps it alive and vibrant.

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As Easy as Un, Deux, Trois?

A blog post written by a PR practitioner I met recently at a networking evening asked readers to vote on the proper pronunciation for the name of our neighbouring province, Québec. Only 23.1 md-Quebec-mapper cent of Ontario participants pronounced it in the correct French manner: Kay-BECK. Should this be shocking in a nation where French is one of Canada’s official languages? Perhaps not, depending on the mix of people who responded to the survey.

In Toronto, many residents “come from away,” as the saying goes, and they find learning English properly to be challenging enough without taking on Canada’s other mother tongue. Those who studied French in Ontario schools don’t necessarily learn French well, since they have every expectation of speaking English, the world’s new language of commerce, wherever they go. Then, there are those who are simply not adept at languages, and mangle any and all words from another language, whether French, Russian or Inuktitut.

Would it be respectful to learn the proper pronunciation? Yes! Is such an effort a mark of openness to other cultures and traditions? Undoubtedly. Is it a low priority for many people? Apparently.

Given the universality of English today, it’s probably realistic for us to expect that anglophones can get by, no matter where we travel. However, we’re the ones who are poorer for not trying to stretch our skills, for not bridging a cultural divide and for not realizing that other languages are gateways to interesting worlds and ways of thinking that we may never understand.

To my PR contact, I say, “Pardonnez-moi!”

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Advice on Writing? Horrors!

When the name of author Stephen King comes up in conversation, it’s usually to discuss his hair-raising horror tales and the movies that they have spawned: Carrie, The Shining and Children of the Corn, for example.

What many people don’t know is that he is also the author of On Writing, a respected book for budding authors. It is part autobiography, part writer’s guide, and certainly worth a read for anyone serious about improving their fiction.

Like many good writers, King has always been a reader and has absorbed language through his pores. However, he also consciously studies other authors whom he respects to learn from their stylistic strengths. In talking of description, for example, he cites such diverse voices as Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot.

“Good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style),” he opines and filling your writer’s toolbox with these necessary elements. “Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”

Whether you enjoy King’s writing or not – I’m a coward when it comes to scary fiction – there is no arguing with his talent in achieving the impact and effect he sets out to create. His writing about writing is worthwhile reading for anyone who dreams of producing the Great Canadian Novel.

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Technology Has the Last Word … or Two

Language, as I have noted before, is fluid and ever-changing. Nothing is surer proof of its fluidity than the inclusion of many media and social media terms in the online version of that august tome, the Oxford English Dictionary. Fitting, I suppose, that these words are being featured in the free online OED.

The editors of the OED don’t take new entries lightly. As the OED blog notes, “Each month, Oxford Dictionaries collects examples of around 150 million words in use from sources around the world, and adds these to the Oxford Corpus. The editors use this database to track and verify new and emerging word trends.” Their research leads to more than 1,000 new inclusions annually.

Included among recent entries are terms such as listicle, an online article in the form of a bulleted list, and live-tweeting, an activity undoubtedly common among Pan Am Games spectators – posting comments about an event on Twitter while the event is ongoing. In fact, those who hate-watch television shows can make the most of the experience by live-tweeting about them.

Perhaps you’ve already read about these entries – after all, in our hyperconnected world, this information in undoubtedly everywhere.

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