Tossing out lexical fields

Leave it to a linguist to suck the joy out of pretty much anything. Picture source:

One of the many things to like about France: random people will occasionally toss out words and concepts that would be quite unusual in the United States.  (To toss out explained below in the English notes.)  Case in point: the expression “lexical field.”  A lexical field, also known as a semantic field, is a set of words that share some focus of meaning.  In American English, this is a highly technical term, and you wouldn’t expect to hear it come out of the mouth of anyone who isn’t an academic of some sort.  As Wikipedia puts it: The kinds of semantic fields vary from culture to culture and anthropologists use them to study belief systems and reasoning across cultural groups.[7]  ….The term is also used in other academic disciplines, such as … computational semiotics,[4] and technical exegesis.[5]

In France: not nearly so obscure.  It came up over a glass of wine with a friend one night, and I’m talking about a music person, not a linguist friend.   Yesterday evening I ran across it on a web site for kids who are preparing for the bac, the high school exit exam.  Here is how it showed up:

Montaigne parsème ainsi son texte du champ lexical du combat: “César,” “Alexandre,” “grand besogne,” “vigueur,” “courage,” “violentes occupations,” “grands maniements,” “batailles,” “provinces,” “grand et glorieux.”

In English:

Thus, Montaigne sprinkles his text with the lexical field of combat: “Caesar,” “Alexander,” “great work,” “vigor,” “courage,” “violent activities,” [not sure how to translate maniements–can a native speaker help?], “battles,” “provinces” [Montaigne refers to conquering them–bear in mind that at the time of writing in the 1500s, it wasn’t that long since Louis XIV had finished the unification of France], “great and glorious.”

Wrap your head around that one: a concept that most of us almost certainly didn’t run into until college, and probably not even then—the lexical field—is used in test-prep materials for high school students, without explanation.   And people ask me why I like to hang out there…

French and English notes follow…

English notes:

to toss out: in this sense, it means something like “to mention casually,” similar to Definition 2 on the Merriam-Webster web site.  Note that it has many other meanings, mostly negative ones having to do with discarding something.  An example of the sense in which I’m using it here, from this story by Alexandra Rosenmann:  “Tell me,” Trump continued. “I mean, I don’t know. You tell me.”  It’s a phrase Trump tosses out a lot: Discussions on everything from Obama’s birthplace, to why gays support Clinton, to why Ghazala Khan stayed silent at the DNC all end the same. Either Trump’s stumped, or he thinks we are.  How it appeared in the post: One of the many things to like about France: random people will occasionally toss out words that would be quite unusual in the United States.

French notes:

Translations from

  • la besogne: hard work, task, labor.
  • besogner: to slave away.
  • besogner quelqu’un: to have sex with someone. gives pénétrer as an explanation of the phrase, so presumably this can only have a man as the logical subject (a technical term–my dog is the logical subject of both My dog stole the butter and The butter was stolen by my dog, but it is the grammatical subject only of My dog stole the butter.  She did, too–horrible shit to clean up for the next 24 hours or so…).
  • C’est aller en peu vite en besogne: to be a bit hasty or premature, to get ahead of oneself a bit.
  • la basse besogne: dirty work.  From Twitter: Honte à ceux qui utilisent les enfants pour leur basse besogneAnother tweet: au fait ce ne sont pas des flics femmes qui auraient dû faire cette basse besogne?????????



Wikipedia is the Devil: case in point from political aspects of French feminism

One of my cousins says: “Wikipedia is the Devil. The Devil, I tell you!” Here’s a case in point.

One of my cousins says: “Wikipedia is the Devil.  The Devil, I tell you!”  Here’s a case in point.

It is sadly the case that women get mistreated in pretty much the same shitty ways all over the world.  (Shitty and other American English expressions explained below.)  Certainly there are some places where it is much worse for women than it is in other places, and in very regionally specific ways–female genital mutilation in some parts of Africa, honor killings in the Middle East, widow immolation in some parts of India, female infanticide in some parts of China–but, all in all, the same issues of violence, sexual abuse, and underpay plague women all over the planet.

Given a certain homogeneity of experience, you might expect feminism to be the same everywhere–the null hypothesis is that everything is the same as everything else, right?  However, it has often been observed that feminism in America and feminism in France have different sets of concerns and preoccupations.  Here’s a capsule description from the Wikipedia article on feminism in France:

In the English-speaking world, the term ‘French feminism’ refers to a branch of feminist theories and philosophies that emerged in the 1970s to the 1990s. French feminist theory, compared to its English-speaking, is distinguished by an approach which is more philosophical and literary. Its writings tend to be effusive and metaphorical being less concerned with political doctrine and generally focused on theories of “the body”.[13]

I’m surprised by the statement that French feminism’s “writings tend to be…less concerned with political doctrine…” …as that is completely the opposite of the impression that I have.  The renaming of an important French feminist group seems relevant as an example of this.  In the forward to their collection New French feminisms: An anthology, Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron describe it like this:

Women concerned with the woman question in France use the words “feminism” and “feminist” less often do their counterparts in the United States.  …[T]here is a … profound reason.  The desire to break with a bourgeois past–with the inadequacies and fixed categories of humanistic thought, including feminism–has led to a vigorous attack against the labels by one of the most influential and radical of the women’s groups (known originally as “Psychanalyse et Politique”–“Psych et Po”–and more recently as “politique et psychanalyse)…”

My point being: French feminists are really, really into critiquing psychoanalysis.  (American feminists aren’t crazy about it, either–the amazing American sociolinguist Robin Lakoff and her colleague James Coyne wrote a book about Freud’s Dora case–but it’s not the subject of nearly as much discussion in the US.)  If the group felt so strongly that politics should have top billing over psychoanalysis that they actually changed the name of the group to reflect that, then that’s an indication that they feel that politics is really, really important.

simone smiling b2bd622faaf56ce460b21b3b0020a807
Simone de Beauvoir. Picture source:

The third chapter of the feminist classic Le deuxième sexe, by Simone de Beauvoir (she’s shown up in this blog before, as Nelson Algren’s lover, before she dumped him for Sartre), is devoted to Engels.  The Wikipedia page on her book describes one of its (indirect) effects like this:

European women became more involved in politics and by the 1990s held six to seven times more legislative seats than the United States, enabling them to influence the process in support of programs for women and children.[104]

The moral of the story: be as cautious of Wikipedia as you would with any other source.  It’s great, but like anything else, it’s not foolproof–citations, or no citations.

French and English notes below.

Want to know more?  Follow these links for:

  • What happens if you get caught crossing a border with a copy of New French feminisms in your backpack
  • Transcendence, immanence, existentialism, and feminism

French notes:

  • la psychanalyse: psychoanalysis.  Pronunciation: [psikanaliz]
  • bien avant: well before, well in advance.  Le féminisme en France naît au milieu du XIXe siècle mais bien avant des personnalités s’étaient préoccupés de l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes.  (Source: Wikipédie page on French feminism.)
  • le courant: branch (of a party); trend, movement.  Either of them should work for this sentence: Plusieurs courants ont coexisté et des divergences existent encore même si le but est le plus souvent le même, à savoir l’égalité totale.  (I’m not sure how to translate si in that sentence–even if??  Can a native speaker help?)

English notes:

  • shitty: (of a person or action) contemptible; worthless.  (Definition from Google.)  How it was used in the post: It is sadly the case that women get mistreated in pretty much the same shitty ways all over the world.  
  • capsule (adjective): short and concise; brief and summarized.  (Definition from  How it was used in the post: Here’s a capsule description from the Wikipedia article on feminism in France.
  • top billing: the first or most prominent position in a list of actors or entertainers, as on a marquee or screen.  (Definition from  You can use it for any ordered list.  How it was used in the post: If the group felt so strongly that politics should have top billing over psychoanalysis that they actually changed the name of the group to reflect that, then that’s an indication that they feel that politics is really, really important.


How graduate school is like (American) football

This is an email that I wrote to a graduate student as they finished up an exceptionally heroic dissertation-writing experience. All identifying information has been changed: Robin is a gender-neutral name. Dalmatian was a Romance language spoken in Croatia. (It became extinct when the last known speaker, Antonio Udina, died in an accidental explosion in 1898.) Slivovitz is a delicious plum brandy that I recommend you drink with roasted lamb. Ilse Lehiste was a major phonetician and historical linguist of the 20th century, and the author of the classic Suprasegmentals. (I applied to Ohio State planning to study with her, not realizing that she had just retired—see my post on how not to apply to grad school.) David Sternberg is the author of the excellent How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation. “T&K” is Sarah Thomason and Terrence Kaufman, the authors of Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics—when my undergraduate advisor made me read it, I lost all faith in distant reconstruction (in historical linguistics, at any rate) and ended up doing lexical semantics in a medical school. Banitsa is a delicious Bulgarian pastry.

Hi, Robin,

I’ve read through the most recent chapters that you sent.  Lots of progress–that’s great.

I’m going to start with what sounds like bad news, but actually isn’t: you should rethink this–a lot.  You are chasing some very specific hypotheses, and betting a lot on them.  What I recommend that you do instead is take a step back and look at the more general contributions that your dissertation can make, focus on those throughout the first chapters, and leave the theoretical implications for a later chapter.

What follows is based pretty heavily on my own approach to science in general, and other people could certainly have their own takes on the scientific enterprise, so if you decide to take my advice in this matter of the overall direction of your dissertation, you should discuss it with your advisor at the minimum, and preferably with the rest of your committee, too.  (Feel free to forward this email to the rest of your committee–I thought about copying everyone, but decided to let you stew on this yourself and then make your own decision about whether or not to do that.)

kennedy football daylight images
Picture source:

One of my fundamental ways of thinking about how to figure out what to publish in general, and how to focus a dissertation in particular, is David Sternberg’s notion of “daylight.”  “Daylight” is actually an idea from American football.  The goal there is to move a ball in a particular direction, while a bunch of big bruisers try to stop you from doing so.  [“Big bruiser” and other obscure American English expressions explained at the bottom of the post, as always.] The most basic advice for how to accomplish this is to look for an open spot between the big bruisers–one through which you can see “daylight”–and then run through it.  (Other approaches would be to try to knock the big bruisers down and run over them–if one wants to finish one’s dissertation in this lifetime, or score a goal in American football, it’s definitely easier to run through the open spot.  I think so, anyway.  ([Note to blog readers: no, I don’t play football–the real tough people play judo.]) 

In the context of a dissertation (and, to some extent, scientific publishing in general), “daylight” is whatever you can contribute to science that hasn’t been contributed to science before.  There are a lot of forms that “daylight” can take:

1) No one has ever written about X before.

2) Someone has written about X before, and/but you looked at it again, and found different facts.

3) Some theory makes a prediction about X, but no one has ever actually tested it.

4) Even better: some theory makes a prediction about X, but no one has ever actually tested it, and you have data that suggests that the prediction is wrong.

5) There are contradictions in the literature.

There are others, but these seem like the most salient ones, at least for a linguist.

So, what do you want to see in a linguistics dissertation, in particular?  Personally, I want to see two things.  In particular, I’d like to see the two main things in (American) linguistics:

1) Description

2) Theoretical implications

football run to daylight 58106302-19ef-4fab-8b03-e665e1731df5_red_rtd_itunes_3000
Picture source:

Back to the generalities: in general, you want (or I want, at any rate), in science in general, to work on questions such that whatever the answer turns out to be, it’s interesting.  For example, (3) and (4) on my partial list of kinds of “daylight” are both versions of the same method: let’s test theory X.  Theory X works in the case of your question?  Great, if no one has ever published that before.  Theory X doesn’t work in the case of your question?  Even better.  Either way: you win.  You win because you’re not invested in any particular outcome–this is the time to be that most dispassionate of dispassionate scientists, only interested in knowing what the truth is.


vince lombardi run-to-daylight-9781476767178_lg
Picture source:!/Vince-Lombardi/9781476767178

If you buy all of that: let’s think about your dissertation in terms of where the daylight is.  Let’s also think about it as linguistics, per se–that is, in terms of description and theory.  When I write the following, I’m writing it on the basis of my knowledge of what the literature already covers, and you certainly know the relevant literature better than I do, so if you disagree, I’m going with your judgement, not mine.  I went through the current chapters and highlighted every place where you mention that no one has ever done something before, and you have:

1) Dalmatian is phonetically understudied.  This is the first acoustic phonetics study of Dalmatian.

2) “To my knowledge, there has never been any study performed to compare the acoustic variations in different dialect groups of Dalmatian speakers.”

3) From p. 16: “My data provides examples of phonological processes that have not been previously mentioned or evaluated.”

4) Does the acoustic observation of sound variation in Dalmatian show consistency in all Dalmatian dialects?  No one else has looked.

5) No one has ever studied code-switching in Dalmatian speakers before–you have.

Now the disagreements (see 5 on my partial list of kinds of daylight):

1) There is disagreement on the number of vowels and consonants in Dalmatian.  You have an answer.  (I didn’t say “the” answer–you don’t have to have “the” answer–just an answer that is well-supported by data and by argument.)

2) Lehiste gives an excellent account of Dalmatian contrasts, but doesn’t capture the variation between dialects.  You do.

3) P. 29: “…there is a disagreement among scholars, whether or not this sound belongs to the vowel inventory of Dalmatian.”


1) Slivovitz says that U and o are allophones–you show that it’s more complicated.

2) Banitsa predicts palatalization–your data shows otherwise.  (Your effort to elicit the palatalized consonants was not “unsuccessful,” as you described it–it was a *successful* effort to find out whether or not they’re there.  Turns out they aren’t, for your speakers.)

3) From p. 20: “According to Mongo (2011), words typically have a single primary stress, which falls on the final syllable….My data shows that stress can also appear on the first syllable, as well as the penultimate syllable.”

4) Slivovitz claims all three insertion processes for all three dialects; you show that it doesn’t happen in Central.

5) P. 25: “The results of my examination demonstrate whether or not Thomason and Kaufman’s assertion applies to Dalmatian.”

Would any single one of these get you a PhD?  Unlikely.  Should all of them get you a PhD?  With some examination of the theoretical implications: yes.  I just gave you THIRTEEN contributions that your dissertation makes, and we haven’t even gotten to the stuff that you’ve mainly been focussing on, which is the whole language contact thing.

So: you’ve got the descriptive part of this covered.  Now you need some theory.  The theories: (a) language contact, (b) the internal, community-identity model (T&K) versus the structure model.  You know what you think Croatian contact might throw into the mix.  You know what you think Slovenian contact might throw into the mix.  You know what you think education, urban versus rural, and age might throw into the mix.  You didn’t just make those predictions up–they’re based on what we know about how language contact usually works, as well as what education does, urbanity does, age does.  Now: is what you would expect to be true based on all of that, true?  Do the predictions all hold?  If so: that’s nice.  Not very interesting, but nice–validation that you got the facts right.  Do the predictions not all hold?  That’s GREAT.  In science, we LOVE data that doesn’t fit theories!  That’s, like, the best thing in the world.  The key: don’t have an investment in the outcome.  Think about all of this such that whatever the answer is, you know what its significance is.  You know that it fits the theories?  Great–you know the theories, and you have a bunch of new data, and that would fit the minimally accepted requirements for giving Robin a PhD, so let’s do so.  You know that it doesn’t fit the theories?  GREAT–Robin realizes that she’s found a problem with the theory, and that’s how science advances, so let’s give her a PhD.

If you buy all of this: you need to do some rewriting.  You don’t need to change the content, really–you just need to move some of it.  Start with facts–just facts. Description.  Tell your reader what the previous literature says, and what’s missing from it.  Tell the reader what your data says.  Point out where the previous literature was right, and where you’ve contributed the new knowledge that it was wrong, and where you’ve filled the empty holes. Then theory, later. Later.  Take all of your speculations, predictions, explanations, etc. about language contact, age, education, etc., out of those earlier chapters.  Put them in a later chapter or chapters.  That’s where you’re going to test the theories–theories about language contact, about the effects of education, age, etc.  When you get there, you’re already going to have half of your PhD in hand, because you’ll already have contributed 13 things (see above) to our incomplete descriptions of Dalmatian.  Now you’re going to be a good linguist and talk about theory, and then you’re going to tell your committee that it’s time to award you your PhD, and you’re going to go on with your life.

On my paper copy, I wrote tons of comments about specific points in the dissertation–things that I don’t agree with, areas where I don’t think that you present the data convincingly, but mostly, place after place after place where you get caught up in the specifics of your predictions about the effects of language contact, etc. and should pull that material out and move it later.  I’m not talking about rewriting five chapters–I’m talking about moving material out of four chapters and putting it later.  You can absolutely do this between now and when your dissertation is due.  If you want the paper copy, come by my office.

Let me know if you have questions about this.  If you agree with the approach that I’m suggesting, I suggest that you forward this email, or some condensed version of it, to your advisor and to the rest of the committee.  If they agree with the approach, too, then you’re on very safe ground.

Postscript: Robin finished their dissertation, and defended it to wide acclaim.  English notes follow–back to French next time.

  •  bruiser: Definition from Merriam-Webster: a large, strong man. (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that the combination of large plus a physical object is not typical–see this post on large and big as things that seem like synonyms, but aren’t, exactly.)  How it appeared in the post: The goal there is to move a ball in a particular direction, while a bunch of big bruisers try to stop you from doing so.
  •  tons of: a large quantity of, a lot of. How it appeared in the post: On my paper copy, I wrote tons of comments about specific points in the dissertation–things that I don’t agree with, areas where I don’t think that you present the data convincingly, but mostly, place after place after place where you get caught up in the specifics of your predictions about the effects of language contact, etc. and should pull that material out and move it later. 
  •  judgement: the British spelling of judgment. The American spelling always rubbed me wrong, somehow—sue me.
  •  investment: this has many meanings.  I meant it in this sense, from The Free Dictionary: “a devoting, using, or giving of time, talent, emotional energy, etc., as to achieve something.”  How it appeared in the post: The key: don’t have an investment in the outcome.  Think about all of this such that whatever the answer is, you know what its significance is.  That is: the advice is to be able to not care (to not devote emotional energy) to what the specific answer happens to be.
  • allophone: a technical term in linguistics. We’ll save it for another time.

What happens when you spend less than 24 hours in Peru: the English perfect tenses

Trigger warning: lots of grammar, occasional obscenities, and photo of deceased Cavia porcellus.

I should’ve expected trouble from the moment that the stewardess on the Lima-to-Houston flight recognized me. ¿No venimos de hacer este viaje anoche? “Didn’t we just do this trip last night?” I smiled a “yes” at her. She switched to English: Couldn’t wait to see me again, huh?  I’m sure I blushed.

The English word before belongs to a couple of parts of speech. Rarely, it can be a preposition indicating location:

  • Sufficiently stoned but not unreasonably so, we stand before the bathroom mirror, marvelling at the crisp clean surfaces of ourselves and one another.
  • How can you stand before her and offer her the nothing, the nothing, that you are?
  •  When the last trump sounds and I stand before the Lord our God and am judged I will be found wanting and know not what to do.

(All examples from the British National Corpus, a collection of 100 million words of British English that is commonly used in linguistic research, courtesy of the Sketch Engine web site.)

More commonly, before is adverbial, indicating a point in a temporal (time) sequence:

  • It should be hard enough to secure the tesserae, but it must not harden before the local pattern has been completed.
  • Admittedly, there is a larger number of fourth century pavements (differential preservation may be an important factor here): before the 1960’s, but for those from Wheeler’s excavation at Verulamium, few pre-fourth century pavements were datable at all.
  • That means that the court has to consider the position immediately before an emergency protection order, if there was one, or an interim care order, if that was the initiation of protection, or, as in this case, when the child went into voluntary care.

In constructions with the perfect tenses, it has a special meaning. The perfect tenses in English are the ones with have used in what’s called a modal sense, followed by a past participle:

  • I have never been able to understand why anyone would want to wake up at the dead of night (5 a.m.) to go and paddle a canoe, but I am assured that the challenge is worth it.
  • I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard it sung in Latin, I certainly haven’t.
  •  She has written various articles on medieval theatre.
  • I saw everything had been tidied up.
  • He was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace when Whittaker Chambers, a renegade and self-confessed Communist ‘spy’ then on the staff of Time magazine, accused him of having passed him documents from the State Department during the late 1930s.

When you combine before with a perfect tense, it has a very specific interpretation: it refers to something that has happened at an earlier point in time, and is happening again now, or is about to happen, or will certainly happen at some point in the future:

  • But, as I‘ve said before , you do have such interesting friends.

Here the speaker is both asserting right now that you have such interesting friends, and asserting that they have said that on some previous occasion.

  • You‘ve heard before that Leeds works within the rules of the framework set down by regional planning guidance…

The speaker is asserting right now that Leeds works within some framework or other, and also asserting that such has been asserted on some previous occasion.

  • I’ve never been to Venice before, I can prove it, nor have I met your father.

 The speaker is in Venice now, but is asserting that they have not been to Venice on a previous occasion.

What you should take away from these examples: in English, the perfect tense plus before refers to something that is happening now, or is about to happen. So, when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer said to me yesterday morning at 7 AM after a long night spent in an unusually uncomfortable aircraft: Have you ever been arrested before? …I thought: This morning is not going to go quite as I had planned.

Peru. Picture source:

A friend who was scheduled to give a keynote speech at a conference on Big Data in Cuzco, Peru had taken ill, and I was asked to fill in for her at the last minute.  I had a commitment right before the conference and a commitment right after it, so giving the talk required that I land in Cuzco at 5 AM, give my talk at 2 PM, and then get on a flight back to the U.S. at 7 PM–a passage éclair, “lighting visit,” as we say in French.

The most salient fact about Peru is this: it’s wonderful. A beautiful place that has a lovely Southern Hemisphere ambience without the constant in-your-face grinding poverty of, say, Guatemala. The people that I met were delightful, and the grilled meats that I had for all three of my meals in-country were probably the best I’ve ever had in my life (and I say that as someone who knows a few good restaurants in Paris). It’s also one of the world’s biggest producers of cocaine.

Cocaine entered the European context when an Italian doctor ran across it in South America. As Wikipedia tells it:

In 1859, an Italian doctor, Paolo Mantegazza, returned from Peru, where he had witnessed first-hand the use of coca by the local indigenous peoples. He proceeded to experiment on himself and upon his return to Milan he wrote a paper in which he described the effects. In this paper he declared coca and cocaine (at the time they were assumed to be the same) as being useful medicinally, in the treatment of “a furred tongue in the morning, flatulence, and whitening of the teeth.”

As he put it in his work Sulle Virtù Igieniche e Medicinali della Coca e sugli Alimenti Nervosi in Generale (“On the hygienic and medicinal properties of coca and on nervous nourishment in general”, translation and quote from Wikipedia):

“… I sneered at the poor mortals condemned to live in this valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the spaces of 77,438 words, each more splendid than the one before…An hour later, I was sufficiently calm to write these words in a steady hand: God is unjust because he made man incapable of sustaining the effect of coca all life long. I would rather have a life span of ten years with coca than one of 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 centuries without coca.”

I don’t actually know how many countries I’ve been to. Between 9 ½ years in the military and a subsequent career that involves a lot of international collaborations, it’s got to be somewhere north of twenty (north of and other obscure American English expressions explained below, as usual). I cross many national borders, and I have never had any problems, either in foreign countries, or when returning to the United States. (I was really worried the time that I passed through French customs with a little bottle of American-made kosher wine in my luggage—I was going to be in Germany for Passover—but, they didn’t catch my nervousness, and I made it into the country without being searched.) Normally, when I return to the United States, I stick my passport into a Global Entry machine, it spits out a piece of paper with my photograph and various bits of information on it, I show that piece of paper to an Immigration officer, he waves me on, and I go about my business. This time, the paper was different: it had a big, black X on it. I showed it to the immigration officer. He asked for my passport, stuck it in an electric reader, and pushed buttons on his computer. Then more buttons, more buttons, and more buttons. Finally: how long have you been out of the country? “Less than 24 hours,” I said.

He pointed me towards an area off to the side of the Customs area that I’d never been to before. (Note the perfect tense had (never) been to and before—that means that I’m going there now.)

I took my suitcase and stood waiting while several Customs agents let me stand there and think for a while. Finally, a couple of them waved me over. Put your suitcase, backpack, and jacket on this table. I did. Then one of them asked me two questions: Is there anything you’d like to tell me before I open this? No. Have you ever been arrested before?

Uh-oh. As it turns out: no, I have never been arrested. (This might come as a surprise to those of you who know just how many tattoos I have, but: no, I haven’t.) Then they started going through my stuff, and when I say “going through,” I mean: searching, and searching very thoroughly. Throughout this, two Customs agents asked me the same questions, over and over, in a variety of ways: Why did you go to Peru? How long were you in Peru? How much cash are you carrying?

The answers didn’t change: For work. Under 24 hours. Under $100. Occasionally they threw in something different: do you have any narcotics? I carry a couple pills containing butalbital for migraines. Your employer paid for your plane ticket? Yes. (Actually, the organizers of the conference at which I gave a keynote paid for it, but my employer actually purchased the ticket—it didn’t seem like a good idea to introduce that level of complication into the conversation, though.) Their question about why I have so many pills in my luggage was easily dealt with—I’m old, I have shit wrong with me, although I didn’t put it in quite those terms—just said that I have prescriptions for everything, which is true. What really raised their eyebrows surprised me—the copy of New French feminisms in my backpack (edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courivron—it’s quite good), and the laminated photocopy of my passport that I carry in my suitcase in case of emergency.

Roasted guinea pig, a specialty of Peru and some other Andean countries. Picture source:

It’s a good thing that I had a decently long layover, because this went on for quite a while. They pulled back the lining on the bottom of my suitcase. The nature of the bags of salted dried corn (corn is a Peruvian specialty, raised in many species and prepared in many ways) that I had purchased as gifts for friends back home were questioned. Inquiries were made as to my profession, what exactly informatics is, and in which countries my relatives reside. (For me, the most nervous-making part of an American border crossing is when the Immigration officer asks me to explain what I do for living—that used to happen a lot before I got my Global Entry card, and it’s hard enough for me to explain my profession in one sentence even when I haven’t just spent six to twelve hours sleeping only very fitfully during an airborne traversal of a very large ocean.) Finally they harrumphed, told me to take my stuff, and I was off to my next flight. Many years ago, I read a novel about a customs inspector, and marveled at/was skeptical about how easy it was for him to spot the lady with a fortune in undeclared currency sewn into the lining of her overcoat, or the man with a king’s ransom of diamonds encased in a salami. I didn’t bother asking why they had flagged me for a thorough search, though—it’s easy enough to guess that some algorithm noted my frequent international travel and my under-24-hours visit to a cocaine-producing country. No big mystery there–that’s what happens when you spend less than 24 hours in Peru, I guess. So: if you ever have the opportunity to visit that beautiful country, plan to stay a while—I plan to visit again, and next time, I’m going to eat some guinea pig.

Thanks to Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic search tools and corpora, for the examples. Check out their web site to see what sorts of things you can learn by exploring huge collections of naturally occurring language. No, they didn’t pay me to mention them–the opposite.  I pay them a few hundred dollars a year for access to their fine offerings.

English notes:

“North of 40” means “more than 40 years old.”  Note: “You’re” should be the possessive pronoun “your.”  Picture source:

North of/south of: these expressions mean more than and less than, respectively. See the picture for a good example. How it showed up in the post: Between 9 ½ years in the military and a subsequent career that involves a lot of international collaborations, it’s got to be somewhere north of twenty [countries].

To catch: lots of idiomatic meanings. I used it in the post in this sense, taken from The Free Dictionary: To become cognizant or aware of suddenly: caught her gazing out the window. How it showed up in the post: they didn’t catch my nervousness, and I made it into the country without being searched.