Mnemonic acronyms for diving

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The PADI (scuba instruction) people should hire a consultant from the medical-training industry to come up with mnemonic acronyms for their lists of “five steps to do such-and-such” or “nine symptoms of so-and-so.” Medical training, from what I've heard of it, has dozens of catchy mnemonic acronyms for that kind of thing; they seem to be a lot better at it than PADI is. Most of the PADI manual doesn't give mnemonics at all, but the two they do give are not so good:

Predive safety check mnemonic: BWRAF = Begin With Review And Friend = BCD, Weight, Releases, Air, Final Check. I'm not convinced that the mnemonic phrase is any more memorable than what it's supposed to remind me of. (I've decided to pronounce “BWRAF” as “Boo-RAF,” which (in my imagination) is the British air force's equivalent of “Booyah!”)

And the other mnemonic, late in the book, in the midst of the section about using a dive computer is: SAFE= Slowly Ascend From Every Dive.

...because I guess if you don't remember to ascend slowly (something they've been mentioning every few pages for the entire book), you're more likely to remember SAFE and what it stands for (“Wait, I know I'm supposed to be SAFE, but what did that stand for? Sordidly Activate Frequency Enhancer? Guess I better rush up to the surface and look it up”), and that will remind you to ascend slowly? Wouldn't it be simpler to just remember to ascend slowly?

I kind of feel like they might as well say SAFE stands for: Safety is important, Always be safe, For goodness' sake, be safe; Exceptions there are none to the rule of always being safe.

Meanwhile, there's no mnemonic at all for the five steps you're supposed to follow before diving. I decided on the mnemonic RORCOD (Ready, Orient, Regulator, COmputer, Descend), which I guess is either Rorschach's fishy cousin or the fish that roared. (Hey, I didn't say I was good at coming up with mnemonic acronyms.)

Great Scott

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An article about the origin of the phrase “Great Scott!”. Short version: it's a minced oath, probably originally referring to US General Winfield Scott.


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The word nurdle has a variety of definitions; in particular, it's most commonly used to refer to a little squirt of toothpaste, or to refer to small plastic pellets.

Edited to add: Okay, I imagine that its use in cricket is actually more common than either of those uses; I missed that brief mention in the linked-to article at first.

I was completely oblivious to the vocal fry/“creaky voice” phenomenon until today. A friend posted about it, and I did a quick search, and found several interesting articles on the subject.

Creaky Voice: Yet Another Example of Young Women's Linguistic Ingenuity
“If you want to see where the language is going, you find a young, urban woman.”
Creaky Voice: A New Feminine Voice Quality for Young Urban-Oriented Upwardly Mobile American Women?
“Previously, creaky voice was interpreted as a voice quality of masculinity or authority. Moreover, a [...] survey indicates that college-age Americans [...] perceive female creaky voice as hesitant, nonaggressive, and informal but also educated, urban-oriented, and upwardly mobile.”
Vocal fry: ‘creeping in’ or ‘still here’?
“these ‘low creaky vibrations’ have been common since forever.” (Also suggests that Mae West used this register.)
This American Life, episode 545, act 2
“Listeners have always complained about young women reporting on our show. They used to complain about reporters using the word like and about upspeak[...]. But we don't get many emails like that anymore. People who don't like listening to young women on the radio have moved on to vocal fry.”
Stanford linguist Penny Eckert did a preliminary study, and found that people under 40 found vocal fry authoritative, while people over 40 didn't. Ira Glass says “So if people are having a problem with these reporters on the radio, what it means is they're old.” Eckert replies: “[the media] want to talk about the crazy ways that young women are speaking [...], even though young men are doing it too. So it's a policing of young people, but I think most particularly young women.”
Naomi Wolf misses the point about ‘vocal fry’. It's just an excuse not to listen to women
“Vocal fry is not a problem. It is merely another excuse to dismiss, ignore and marginalise women's voices, both literally and figuratively. And it's just the latest in a long history of finding excuses not to listen to what women, especially young women, say.”

sectional (and yak-shaving)

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Ah, yak-shaving.

I was curious about the use of the word “sectional” in Civil War-era documents; that's not a usage I had encountered before. So here's how looking up a word goes in the modern world, at least for me:

First I Googled [sectional], and got info about sofas. Then I Googled [sectional Civil War] and got pages that used the term but didn't define it or talk about usage.

So I went to to look it up. But that site has once again forgotten that I always check the “Remember me” checkbox, so it wants me to log in again. (If I weren't a subscriber, I would've gone to their free dictionary page and gotten the info I wanted immediately.)

So I sent them a tech-support note asking how to get the site to remember me, but first I had to make sure cookies were enabled, which required digging into Chrome settings and then Googling [_utma].

And when I was done with all that, I still had to sign in to the dictionary. But I didn't remember my password, so I went to 1Password. Except the 1Password extension in Chrome had disappeared. So I went to find it in the extensions store. Turns out it was installed, just disabled. So I tried enabling it, but that didn't work. So I looked at my extensions page and clicked Reload, and that worked. So I tried to use the newly re-enabled extension to fill in my username and password. And it gave me an error message saying it couldn't verify the authenticity of my browser and thus couldn't fill in my info.

Here's how the old style of looking up a word works: pick up a physical paper dictionary, find the word, read the definition. Of course, that would require getting out of bed.

PS: It turns out that the relevant definition of “sectional” is “local or regional rather than general in character.” I eventually found it by looking at the free version of the MW website instead of the signed-in version.

PPS: If you haven't encountered the term “yak-shaving” before, wiktionary has a pair of definitions. Though I feel like there's also a third variation in which the connotation is that you should have avoided the whole recursion chain by doing something different at the start.

My favorite example of yak-shaving is a 30-second video clip that I gather is from Malcolm in the Middle.


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The other day, Mary Anne linked to an article that claimed that the new gender-neutral title “Mx” was being officially added to the OED. I'm not linking to that article because it turned out, alas, that it had based that claim on a Sunday Times article that only said the OED was considering adding it. So as far as I can tell, it's not in the OED yet.

But in comments on Mary Anne's post, a couple of people indicated that they didn't see a need for the new title, so I wrote up some thoughts about it, and I figured I might as well post those thoughts as a blog entry.

When we were first deciding on policies for the Strange Horizons fiction department, we decided not to use titles in addressing correspondence to submitters; instead, we decided to use their full names. One reason I was in favor of that policy was that I went to a college founded by Quakers, and the not-using-titles thing rubbed off on me. But another reason, probably the biggest one for me, was that picking an honorific meant making assumptions about the submitter's gender given no information other than their name. A significant percentage of submitters had names that weren't obviously gendered (and even commonly-gendered names are no guarantee), so using “Mr” or “Ms” had a significant chance of being wrong.

And although I do like the address-the-person-by-full-name approach, if “Mx” had been widely known and understood at the time, I might well have been interested in using that, as a form of nongendered respectful address.

Relatedly, a few organizations that I donate to have started to require that donors specify a title when they donate. I currently can't do that without specifying my gender (or lying about my doctoral status), and I don't feel that my gender is any business of theirs. If I could specify “Mx,” I would. Same with my favorite hotel, where despite my complaints they still won't let me reserve a room online without specifying my gender.

More generally: In our society, there are lots of times when people use titles to refer to other people. Under most of those circumstances, gender is completely irrelevant, and yet most of the time we can't use a title without tying gender to it.

So I wholeheartedly support the use of “Mx.”

In the 1970s, a lot of people railed against the awful new title “Ms.” They presumably felt it was perfectly reasonable to require a woman to specify her marital status if she wanted to be addressed respectfully. Today, we no longer feel the need to specify marital status in titles for women (we never did in titles for men), but we still seem to consider it ordinary and reasonable to require binary gender. I'm hoping that forty years from now, “Mx” will be as ordinary and unobjectionable as “Ms” is today.

(PS: I'm using the term “title” here as a synonym for “honorific”; I'm not thrilled with either term in this context, but they seem to be the standard terms.)

More recombinant idioms

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The following bit from an old Dr Who episode popped into my head this morning:

Seventh Doctor: Time and tide melt the snowman.

Mel: Doctor, "wait for *no* man."

Doctor: So who's waiting?

I never actually saw the episode, but I liked the quote, though it may not be precisely accurate. So I went to check on the phrasing, and ended up finding some other Seventh Doctor-isms; I particularly liked “Fools rush in where horses fear to drink.”

Elliott has been calling this sort of thing a “recombinant idiom” for a long time. I only just learned, from the Wikipedia article about the Seventh Doctor, that they're also known as “dundrearyisms,” after a character from the play Our American Cousin, which I've never seen nor read.

While I'm here, here are a couple from Elliott from a long time ago that I never got around to posting.

The administration has the upper ground.

—Professor emeritus Nathan Glazer, in a 2003 New York Times article


That way, the public will be more secure that we're not trying to pull a fast one over their eyes.

—Moses Carey of the Orange County (NC) Board of County Commissioners, in a 2003 Chapel Hill News article


To say that the world is trying to destroy “the romance of depression,” and by doing so end the future of literature and art, is a load of crock.

—Liz Kuzemski of Greenfield, MA, in a letter to the editor of the Valley Advocate, Feb. 17-23, 2000.

And finally:

Bush's visit to the vehemently anti-Catholic Jones college is a wedge big enough to drive a candidacy through.

Newsweek, March 13, 2000, p. 34

What They Did II: The Movie Breakup

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I've always been fond of my 1997 Words & Stuff post What They Did: The Movie, featuring short, silly, and surreal bits of fiction and drama consisting entirely of movie titles.

Now a comedy group called POYKPAC has upped the ante with a great four-minute video, Movie Title Breakup. The dialogue consists entirely of 154 movie titles, the storyline makes significantly more sense than any of mine did, and the video helpfully shows the covers of the movies in question as they go. Very nicely done.

Back in December, linguistics grad student Gretchen McCulloch analyzed joke variants on Benedict Cumberbatch's name to see what the underlying patterns are. She gave more statistical detail in a post on her blog.

Interesting and fun discussion, but I found it odd (in the Toast article) that it took her a couple of iterations to come up with initial-syllable stress as a factor; that part seemed obvious to me. But maybe she was guiding readers through a process of figuring it out, rather than describing the actual process she went through.

I also would've liked to've seen some further discussion about whether secondary stress on the final syllable of each word is relevant, but secondary stress is tricky and might've been too much of a digression.

...I also found it interesting that some of the specific examples don't work for me; in particular, I would never have guessed that “Bombadil Rivendell” was a Cumberbatch variation. (At first I thought she was saying it was a non-valid example, but then she says it came from the generator.) I think my own personal rules for what sounds like a variant of his name are stricter than the ones implied by the name generator. Another example: “Beetlejuice Animorph” doesn't sound to me like a joke on “Benedict Cumberbatch” except in the context of discussing Cumberbatchian names.

And I think she may not go far enough in some directions. The PronunciationManual joke pronunciation video for Benedict Cumberbatch opts for “Bucket Crunderdunder,” which isn't a perfect variation but is a funny one. And I think if someone said “I'm a big fan of that actor Bucket Crunderdunder,” I would know who they were talking about. Though in large part that's because (as McCulloch mentions) if one of the names is really obvious, the other one doesn't have to be. In other words, the “Bucket” part is almost useless, but “Crunderdunder” carries the variation almost on its own.

(I think The Cumberbatch Variations would be a good Fake Ludlum Title.)

I'd also have liked to see her try to construct new variations to test her hypotheses. For example, we could start with a pair of three-syllable words with initial stress, like “Higgledy Piggledy,” and see whether transforming them in accordance with her rules produces a valid variation:

Ends in consonant: Higgledip Piggledip.

Begins with B and/or hard C sounds: Biggledip Kiggledip.

Second word ends in preferred consonant: Biggledip Kiggledish.

She said that a good variant should have at least three of the listed factors. I think this one probably works: “I'm a big fan of that actor Biggledip Kiggledish.” Probably close enough. I'll go on to add her other rules:

N or M between first two syllables: Bimmeldip Kinneldish.

Has æ in final syllable: Bimmeldip Kinneldash.

Yep, Bimmeldip Kinneldash is definitely a valid variation. (For best results, I would tweak it a bit to Bunnydip Kenneldash.) But that's also because using all five of her rules transforms any pair of dactylic words into being awfully close to the original name. So I think that part of what's going on with those rules is that they demonstrate the allowable variations for certain phonemes to “sound like” certain other phonemes to English speakers. Nasals sound similar, sibilants sound similar, etc. So if you take a word and replace the sounds in it with other ones that sound similar, then you'll get a word that sounds similar to the original.

To be clear: I'm not trying to disparage her rules! I think they're neat, and it's a good analysis, and the at-least-three part is especially interesting to me. I certainly would never have figured out most of this. So I don't intend this post as criticism; just exploring the ideas.

My favorite Unicode character name

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My favorite Unicode character name is LATIN SMALL LETTER P WITH SQUIRREL TAIL (U+A755).

The character itself is pretty cool too. If you're viewing this page in one of the few Unicode fonts that supports this character, you can see it here: ꝕ. Otherwise, follow the link for an image.

But the name is what I really love about it.


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“Overhead he heard the tiny, unlubricated sound of a bat.” —Theodore Sturgeon, “Excalibur and the Atom,” 1951.

Reading these old Sturgeon stories is reminding me that prose can unashamedly use poetic metaphors. They're the kind of metaphors that never even occur to me to write, but I love reading them; maybe I should practice more.

I think of that kind of thing as having been more common in the '30s through the '50s than it is today; see also my Words & Stuff column (from 1999) on similes, featuring Leigh Brackett, Raymond Chandler, Edith Wharton, and Beryl Markham.

Unfortunate Forever Stamps

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I'm guessing most Americans know by now that the US Postal Service sells “Forever Stamps”; you buy a Forever Stamp at today's first-class one-ounce stamp price, and it will be good for the first ounce of regular first-class postage forever. And instead of a price on the face of the stamp, it says the word “forever.”

Which can result in interesting juxtapositions with the subject matter of the stamp.

Many such juxtapositions can be seen as reasonable declarations of, or hopes for, the longevity of the subject. For example, the Forever Stamp with the word “Freedom” on it seems like a reasonable thing to hope for. And the Forever Stamp with a picture of Dumbledore on it seems like a nice way to declare your interests.

But I recently got a sheet of stamps titled Made in America: Building a Nation, featuring black and white photos honoring America's industrial workers. As Lewis Hine, one of the featured photographers, wrote, “I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected[, and] I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”

And sure, it's great to express an interest in remembering our industrial workers forever. But it nonetheless felt a little weird to me to use a stamp that showed (for example) a millinery apprentice, who I suspect did a lot of hard work for not much pay, with the word “forever” on it.

So I started wondering what more-unfortunate things stamps could show with the word “forever.”

But before I could post asking for suggestions, I came up with an answer that I think will be hard to top:

A 1984 stamp. With the words “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face.” And then the denomination “forever.”

...Still, I welcome other suggestions. And while I'm here, I may as well link to my similarly-themed license-plate-slogan challenge from 1997.

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