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Pull out all the stops

An idiom for English teachers/learners and music buffs: Pull out all the stops. As Wiktionary tells us: 

Etymology: An allusion to organ stops, which control the loudness and tones of a pipe organ. When all are pulled out, the organ can play all tones simultaneously.

Verb: pull out all the stops - (idiomatic) To reserve or hold back nothing. They pulled out all the stops for the gala wedding.

Synonyms: (reserve nothing): empty the tank, give one's all, go all out, go the whole nine yards

Here it is in real life! (Video starts a little slowly.) An amazing opening to an amazing piece of music.

Close your eyes and subitize

How many dots can you subitize?

I heard the word recently, and, having majored in and taught math, was surprised that I didn't know it. My favorite wordsmith, Anu Garg, writes:


verb tr., intr.: To perceive, without counting, the number of objects in a small group.


From Latin subitus (sudden), from past participle of subire (to appear suddenly), from sub- (under) + ire (to go). Earliest documented use: 1949.

More from Wikipedia:

Subitizing, coined in 1949 by E.L. Kaufman et al. refers to the rapid, accurate, and confident judgments of number performed for small numbers of items. The term is derived from the Latin adjective subitus (meaning "sudden") and captures a feeling of immediately knowing how many items lie within the visual scene, when the number of items present falls within the subitizing range. Number judgments for larger set-sizes were referred to either as counting or estimating, depending on the number of elements present within the display, and the time given to observers in which to respond (i.e., estimation occurs if insufficient time is available for observers to accurately count all the items present).

They also presented me with an amazing new medical term: simultanagnosia.

Clinical evidence supporting the view that subitizing and counting may involve functionally and anatomically distinct brain areas comes from patients with simultanagnosia, one of the key components of Balint's syndrome. Patients with this disorder suffer from an inability to perceive visual scenes properly, being unable to localize objects in space, either by looking at the objects, pointing to them, or by verbally reporting their position. Despite these dramatic symptoms, such patients are able to correctly recognize individual objects. Crucially, people with simultanagnosia are unable to enumerate objects outside the subitizing range, either failing to count certain objects, or alternatively counting the same object several times.

All of which reminded me that I have long been convinced that estimation and guestimation are important skills that we were never taught. Since I always have my phone with me, I probably no longer need to estimate what 17 x 24 is (did I ever?), but I still think that knowing that 10 x 24 is 240 so 20 x 24 is 480 so 17 x 24 is about (3 x 25) 75 less or about 405. It's actually 408. Close enough.

Which leads me back to a discussion I had recently with my friend who is a child development expert—is algebra really an important skill? I know nothing about current math teaching so I do speak only from my past experience. But this topic seems to be front and center with regard to middle and high school curriculum revisions. While I do value abstract thinking and how algebra develops that area, and while it was one of my favorite high school classes and I taught it at a community college, I feel that providing children and teens with actual number experiences—construction and measurement, revising knitting patterns, recipe conversion, calculating miles per gallon, foreign currency conversion, evaluating numbers and statistics in news articles—is possibly more important.

I once taught a class at Duke Continuing Education called Math Anxiety—a course for adults (mostly all women) who had phobiaed out of math. They were completely unable to read a number in a story and make sense of it.

Whoops. This is a language blog. I ramble. Close your eyes and subitize.


Book Titles in Translation (6/15/12)

I'm in a mystery book phase just now. This usually happens when I'm a little (or a lot) overwhelmed by work and life, causing all the non-fiction that I can't resist buying to stack up on the floor and to await the return of my normally calm state.

I'm now reading the fifth in a wonderful series by Fred Vargas. Her characters are fascinating and they grow on you more with each novel. Fred Vargas is a French woman. You can read about her and about her name on Wikipedia, of course. One of the problems with reading a series originally written in another language is the order in which translations appear is often different than the order in which the originals were printed. A friend put me onto a website that helps to solve that: Stop, You're Killing Me! If you are mystery reader and don't know this site, you will be very grateful to me for sharing it.

Here are the French and English titles of the Vargas books. I've added the translations.

L’homme aux cercles bleus (1990, 1996) [The man with the blue circles]
The Chalk Circle Man [2009]

L’homme à l’envers (1999) [The man in reverse]
Seeking Whom He May Devour [2004] 

Pars vite et reviens tard (2001) [Leave quickly and come back later]
Have Mercy on Us All [2003]

Sous les vents de Neptune (2004) [Downwind of Neptune]
Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand [2007]

Dans les bois éternels (2006) [In the eternal woods]
This Night’s Foul Work [2008]

Un lieu incertain (2008) [An uncertain place]
An Uncertain Place [2011]

L’armée furieuse (2011)

Interestingly, Google Translate, which looks for common translations, translates Pars vite et reviens tard as "Have Mercy on Us All", since, when you Google the French title, most of the references are to this book and its English title. I have absolutely no idea why the titles were changed and no opinion as to whether the originals or the English titles are better. If you do, send me your thoughts?

The last book in the series has been translated into Spanish (El ejercito furioso) but not into English. I might be tempted to try the Spanish if it doesn't come out in English soon. (The Spanish titles are mostly direct translations of the French.)

Video to watch (3/30/12)

Except for the fact that this video is in German, it has nothing to do with language. But watch it even if you don't know a word of German. I promise you that you will kench! (That's the language part of today's blog entry.)

My friend Victoria sent me a link to a site that I hope to explore a lot more: Matador Network's Language Learning page. The site is for travel and travel writers and this page seems to have an abundance of interesting uploads.

Kenchis #4 in a list of obsolete English words posted by Heather Carriero.

4. Kench

Verb intr. – “To laugh loudly” – This Middle English word sounds like it would do well in describing one of those times when you inadvertently laugh out loud while reading a text message in class and manage to thoroughly embarrass yourself.

Check out jargogle and deliciate.


Pan comido vs. piece of cake (2/22/12)

Here's a Spanish expression I love (from Spanish Word of the Day): 

ser pan comido

English translation: to be a piece of cake
¡Este laberinto es pan comido!
 (English: This labyrinth is a piece of cake!)

Pan comido is literally eaten bread. We also say easy as pie. In Chile they say ser una papa (to be a potato) but that means to be lousy at something in Mexico. I also found un juego de niños (kid's game). We say child's play.

The plot thickens. On this wonderful page that has Spanish-English side by side, I find an English translation for pan comido that is doddle. (I will revisit this site in the future—it's marvelous.) Doddle turns out to be a real word. I can't wait to use it in conversation. I also see easy peasy used. And cinch and many others.

These must represent some cultural differences (partially based on carbohydrates), but I have no idea what they might be.

Wellerism (2/7/12)

I've written about Anu Garg and his brilliant Wordsmith website before. He has been sending out emails since 1994. The NY Times says "The most welcomed, most enduring piece of daily mass e-mail in cyberspace." I agree. I particularly love the weekly summary he sends out with amazing comments on the week's words from individuals throughout the world.

Last week he ran a contest on Wellerisms. 

MEANING: noun: An expression involving a familiar proverb or quotation and its facetious sequel. It usually comprises three parts: statement, speaker, situation.

"We'll have to rehearse that," said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car.
"Prevention is better than cure," said the pig when it ran away from the butcher.

ETYMOLOGY: After Sam Weller and his father, characters known for such utterances in Charles Dickens's novel Pickwick Papers. Earliest documented use: 1839.

The responses were wonderful. Check them out here. Here are his top three winners. I actually had some other favorites. But I defer.

"Would you put it on one side for me?" he said when the man at the Airfix shop told him they had a model Italian cruise ship in stock.
-Bullus Hutton, Vancouver, Canada (bullus

"Health is wealth," said the doctor as he totaled his earnings.
-Rama Bishnoi, Mumbai, India (ramabishnoi

"Darling, I've missed you!" she said as she fired the gun a second time.
-Ken Kirste, Sunnyvale, California (kkkirste


Dividual/Dividuality (1/19/12)

I've run across this word several times. But it seemed particularly important when I heard it discussed on On the Media on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this past Monday. MacArthur Fellow Louis Hyde describes it as our collective being or self, our public self, how we contain community in our "inside self." It is in contrast to individual and individuality. I think it may describe how we primarily view ourselves—as members of a community whose furtherance is our responsibilty and goal or as individuals, primarily responsible to ourselves.

Raised as we are in what must be one of history's most individualistic societies, we may have difficulty really understanding dividuality.

The definitions are definitely peculiar.

  1. Separate, distinct.
  2. Divisible, divided.
  3. Shared, held in common (with others).

1 and 2 seem quite the opposite of 3. Alternatively, I found:

  1. Divided, shared, or participated in, in common with others.

That's not a whole lot more clear. P2P, unavailable on Jan. 16 as they are opposing the SOPA legislation, writes: "a physically embodied human subject that is endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies ..." Going from bad to worse!

However, this website does help, if a wee bit abstruse when you read down its page:

…persons – single actors – are not thought in South Asia to be “individual,” that is, indivisible, bounded units, as they are in much of Western social and psychological theory as well as in common sense. Instead, it appears that persons are generally thought by South Asians to be “dividual” or divisible. To exist, dividual persons absorb heterogeneous material influences. They must also give out from themselves particles of their own coded substances – essences, residues, or other active influences – that may then reproduce in others something of the nature of the persons in whom they have originated.” McKim Marriott Hindu Transactions: Diversity without Dualism

The word may be difficult but I'm pretty sure that it in some sense (maybe just as what I want it to mean) underlies all of what Martin Luther King had to say in the wonderful hour that Amy Goodman and Democracy Now presented on Monday. If you have an hour, I strongly recommend that you listen to this broadcast instead of reading it. You can also download it at iTunes as a video broadcast. It is extraordinarily and so sadly still relevant in 2012.

P.S. You'll be glad to know there is an Atlanta band named DiViDUAL.


Genderize and bilingualism (6/7/11)

I saw Potiche this weekend, a French film with Catherine DeNeuve in full form—a force. There were some fun Bollywood moments, including the closing song, C'est beau, la vie. How lucky we English speakers be, with our ungenderized nouns. Of course beau is masculine and vie feminine. Asking a translator friend of mine why one didn't sing "C'est belle, la vie", she replied "because the subject is Ce, which is masculine." One could also sing "La vie est belle."

Of course in Spanish, where you leave the subject out of most sentences, one would say "Es bella, la vida" and "La vida es bella." Just in case you think all romance languages have the same grammar.

Please know that genderize really is a verb. Wiktionary provides the following:

genderize (third-person singular simple present—genderizes, present participle—genderizing, simple past and past participle—genderized)
1.    (transitive) To bestow gender upon; to make male or female. 
quotations 2002, Helene P Foley, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy. Yet the implications of implicitly genderizing ethical positions in these particular plays may be even more far reaching than it appears on the surface.

For non-New York Times readers, Miriam found an interesting article about bilinguilism that you may not have seen. "The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important." Those were young children. Bilingualism also makes you a better multi-tasker and may delay Alzheimer's. However, "You have to use both languages all the time. You won’t get the bilingual benefit from occasional use."

Anomia (5/18/11)

I subscribe to way too many language blogs but do have one favorite. I invite those of you who enjoy the English language addenda to subscribe to it. If you read the recent email below, you'll see why I recommend Anu and his co-workers. He has been doing this since 1994! He sends out a daily email with a word based on a weekly theme and once a week an email containing responses to that week's words. The responses are as much fun to read as the originals. There are very many clever, even obsessed, word addicts out there. You can find more information about the work at the A Word A Day website.


with Anu Garg

The English language is one big happy family that has something for everyone. It has a word for someone who never laughs (agelast) and a word for one who laughs too much (abderian). It has a word for fear of lightning (astraphobia) and a word for hatred of reason (misology). And in between these words, there are words for almost everything under the sun (and beyond).

This week we'll visit a few terms that make one say, "I didn't know there was a word for that!"



MEANING: noun: The inability to recall names of people or objects.

ETYMOLOGY: From Latin a- (without) + nom (name). Earliest documented use: 1900. Don't confuse the word with anomie.

USAGE: "In Dad's case of anomia, he's been calling his nightly can of beer 'ink'. Sometimes he calls it 'gas', which makes a kind of sense."

Patricia Traxler; I'm Still Listening for My Father's Words; Newsweek (New York); Jun 11, 2007.


Harkers Island Speak (4/28/11)

As beach season seems to have arrived, I'm copying below something I got via Sue Mathias who got it from Eddie, Alison and Anna of Core Sound Seafood.

"As previewed in last week's email, I wanted to talk a little bit about the unique accent found Downeast. One of our shareholders, Carmine Prioli, is a writer who has written about the heritage of Downeast fishing culture and the challenges fishermen are facing in a beautiful book entitled Hope for a Good Season. As part of this book, he writes about the Harker's Island dialect and I wanted to share it here.

He writes: 'Many Harkers Islanders believe their distinctive brogue is a variant of the Elizabethan English of Shakespearean times. It is true that aspects of their language, such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical constructions can be traced to the British Isles, especially to eastern and southwestern England. A linguistic study by the North Carolina Language and Life Project has shown, however, that the modern Harkers Island brogue shares features with other regional dialects, including New England and mainland North Carolina. Although it often takes a trained ear to discern the subtle differences in the 'hoi toider' speech of Outer Banks communities, the current version of the Harker's Island dialect "mix" is rich with colourful expressions and vocabulary. Unlike the more widely known village of Ocracoke, where the dialect has long been influenced by tourism and a large number of transplanted residents, Harkers Island has until recently remained semi-isolated, despite the bridge connecting it to the mainland. One linguistic trait that many islanders share is saying the opposite of what they mean: 'Well, you're looking right ugly today! would actually be quite a compliment.' (Prioli, 1998)

Eddie and Alison live on Harker's Island, where Eddie was born and raised, a 4th generation fishermen. They have taught me all sorts of selected Harker's Island vocabulary. A few examples:

"gale"= a high wind, "You can't fry cornbread with a southeast gale." (Means you can't do anything with a southeast wind, not even fry cornbread at home.)

dingbatter" = any visitor or transplanted resident of Harkers Island, "We've been right much plagued with dingbatters lately."

"feesh"= fish, "Eddie's not here. He's a-feeshin' to Core Sound today."

"gadding about"=out on a day trip, visiting someone or shopping, "Alison's been a-gadding about."

"nicket"=a pinch of something when cooking, "A nicket of salt will do."

"prog"=to feel in the mud for clams with your bare feet under water, "When we were kids we used to go over to Shackleford to prog for clams."

Hope that was a bit of an introduction into part of the Harker's Island and larger Downeast culture!"



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