Your hands and how you feed your children

On an atypical day, the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting due to forgetfulness about not rinsing your toothbrush in the tap water.

That curly thing (it’s called a “pigtail”) is a catheter sitting in the left ventricle of the heart. Frame D is what it looks like when a healthy heart contracts–if you’ve had damage from a heart attack, you’ll see it here as a section of the chamber that doesn’t contract. Picture source:

One week a year I get on a plane with a bunch of surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and therapists and head to Guatemala, where everyone else spends the week providing free surgery for people for whom the almost-free health care provided by the government medical system is still too expensive, and I spend the week interpreting.  Don’t get totally lost in Doctors Without Borders fantasies–we stay in a lovely hotel, the surgeries happen in a four-OR operating suite, and on a typical day the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is finding someone to relieve you so that you can get to the cafeteria before the hand-made Guatemalan tortillas (yes, they’re different from the ones that you’re used to) are gone.  (On an atypical day, the biggest hardship that one has to overcome is explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting due to forgetfulness about not rinsing your toothbrush in the tap water–but, as I said, that’s atypical.)

The left ventricle needs to get filled with dye far more quickly than your hand could inject it, so you need a special pump to slam it in quickly. Picture source:

When new interpreters join us for the first time, the thing that they’re most worried about is the medical vocabulary.  However, that’s actually the least of your problems–medical vocabulary is more or less finite, and you can buy a book about it, memorize it, and modulo local dialect differences (every cardiac catheterization lab that I ever worked in had a different name for the special pump that you use to shoot a bolus of radiopaque dye into the left ventricle), you’ll be just fine.  (Modulo is explained in the English notes at the end of the post.)

The real problem is everything but the medical vocabulary.  Think about this: a patient presents themself to the surgeon.  They’re missing two fingers, and one is just hanging there, useless.  The surgeon’s first question: what happened?  The answer could be anything.  

  • I was getting out of my car and three guys attacked me with a machete.
  • I fell into the cooking fire.
  • I was sitting in a truck and the carburetor exploded.

I didn’t make any of these up, and the cooking fire thing happens tragically often–mostly with children.

I mostly work with a hand surgeon.  The basic principle of hand surgery is this: make the person be able to function again at whatever they do.  You often have to make choices about trade-offs–a surgery that would let you open your hand again after it’s been scarred into a fist by burns might leave you with a weak grip, and that’s going to be a problem for a farmhand; a surgery that would give you back your full grip strength might make it tough for you to do things that require fine motor control, which is not OK if you’re a seamstress.  Consequently, one of the questions that the hand surgeon always asks is: what do you do for a living?  …and that could be pretty much anything.  

So, yeah: it’s not the technical vocabulary that keeps you on your toes in medical interpreting–it’s the entire remainder of the language, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that the statistical properties of human languages are such that if you’re not a native speaker, you will come across vocabulary items that you don’t know Every. Single. Day. Of. Your. Life.

The shirts are called huipiles. In the Guatemalan highlands, you will see women wearing them every single day. Weaving one takes about a year. Picture source:

For today’s vocabulary, here are some words for professions that require quite a bit of use of your hands.  Note that almost any profession requires some use of your hands–I’m picking just a few here, focussing on ones that you wouldn’t be surprised to come across in low-income people in Central America.  If you have almost no education, and you’re doing any of these for a living, and you lose the use of a hand, your options for feeding your children become quite limited.  Hand surgery is about removing those limitations.  Want to support this kind of work?  Twenty bucks from you would literally pay for more than all of the pain medication that we’ll hand out in one week’s time.  You can donate here.

English Spanish French
farmhand granjero  ouvrier agricole
farmer  agricultor  fermier, agriculteur
gardener jardinero jardinier
seamstress modista  couturière
tailor  sastre  tailleur
waiter/waitress  mesero, camarero  serveur
weaver tejedor/a tisseur, tisserand
 carpenter carpintero  charpentier
 construction worker el albañil  ouvrier du bâtiment

English notes

modulo This is originally a term from mathematics.  In casual use, it means something like with the exception of, or besides.  I should point out that this word is characteristic of the speech of geeks, and only geeks–but, amongst my people (geeks), it’s quite common.

This example should be incomprehensible to any normal human, but I find it adorable due to exactly that incomprehensibility–“init” refers to a common part of a program, and the writer is saying that she’s left the “init” part out of what she’s showing you:

How it was used in the post: Medical vocabulary is more or less finite, and you can buy a book about it, memorize it, and modulo local dialect differences, you’ll be just fine. 

themselfHere we get into the controversial topic of pronouns in the Pacific Northwest, the part of the United States where I grew up.  Many native speakers of American English would balk at this pronoun, as well as theirself, which we also use in the Pacific Northwest.  Another vagary of our local use of pronouns is that when you have a subject that consists of two conjoined pronouns, they have to be in the dative: Me and him are going to the store, do you want some Redman?  Here’s a nice article on the themself form from the Merriam-Webster web site, which points out that themselves (which every other native speaker thinks us Pacific Northwest natives should be using) didn’t show up in English until the 1400s, with themself being the only possibility up to that point.

How it got used in the post: Think about this: a patient presents themself to the surgeon.  They’re missing two fingers, and one is just hanging there, useless.  

French notes

There are two French words that could translate the English word “carpenter:” charpentier, and menuisier.  Looking them both up on Google Images, it seems to be the case that a charpentier is a carpenter in the sense of someone who builds buildings, while a menuisier is a carpenter in the sense of a woodworker.  Native speakers, do you have thoughts about this?

Hits for charpentier from Google Images:

Hits for menuisier from Google Images:

…and, yes, this is how linguists try to figure things out.  We’re actually less excited about dictionaries than you might think…

White House leak template for journalists: You speak more English/French/Spanish than you think you do

For me, it became clear that we had crossed some horrible line between sanity and madness when journalists started laughing during news stories. On the plus side, this leads to a discussion of the role of recursion in language.

For me, it became clear that we had crossed some horrible line between sanity and madness when journalists started laughing during news stories.  Leaks of stories of hallucinatory misbehavior, treason, criminality, and just plain evil have been coming out of the Trump government so fast that it’s become surreal.  Potential reasonable reactions include despair, and humor.  Taking the second option, the New York Times web site recently published a satire piece called The White House Leak Template for Journalists.  You click on various and sundry choices…

Screenshot 2017-06-18 20.24.59
Picture source: screen shot from the New York Times web site,

…and it generates a little news story about a leaked Trump administration scandal for you.

Scroll to the bottom of this page, and you’ll find screen shots of the whole thing.  It’s sadly hilarious, but behind the hilarity is an important point about how language works.

One of the things that’s interesting about language is that every human language (what we call in my line of work “natural” languages, as opposed to computer languages) is capable of saying an infinite number of things.  “Infinite” is a big claim, and you’re right to be skeptical about it.  So, let me just show you that with even a very small amount of knowledge of a language, you can say an enormous number of things–much more than you might ever have thought–and as you’ll see at the end of the post, this is a fact that has important implications for the many people reading this blog who are trying to learn a second language.

Let’s suppose that you know how to say a simple declarative sentence in some language or another–my dog ate my shoes.  You’ve got a subject, a verb, and an object.  Suppose that you know 10 nouns and 10 verbs.  You can now say the following number of sentences:

10 nouns * 10 verbs * 9 nouns = 900 sentences

Why only 9 nouns in the object position?  Because I’m assuming that you won’t use the same noun for the object as you did for the subject.  So, whichever noun you pick for the subject, you now have nine choices left for the object, rather than the 10 that you started with.

Let’s suppose that you have a language–like French or Spanish–that inflects all verbs differently for singular versus plural subjects.  Let’s also suppose that in our calculation above, we included only singular forms of the verbs.  Add the plural form of the nouns and the plural form of the verbs, and now you have the following additional sentences:

10 plural nouns * 10 verbs * (9 plural nouns plus 9 singular nouns) = 1800 sentences

To recap: 900 sentences if you only know the singulars, plus another 1800 if you add the plurals, so you’ve got 2700 sentences that you can say.

Note: this post relies heavily on a branch of math called combinatorics.  I stink at combinatorics, so please be kind!  Corrections are welcome in the Comments section.

To this point, we’ve only been using nouns and verbs.  Let’s add a new kind of word: and. Even if we didn’t know the plural forms of the verbs, and lets us say a truly remarkable number of sentences with just our 10 singular nouns and our 10 singular verbs.  Recall how many simple declarative sentences we could say with just 10 nouns and 10 verbs:

10 nouns * 10 verbs * 9 nouns = 900 sentences

Once you’ve picked a noun for the subject, you have 9 nouns left for your object, leaving eight unused nouns.  Suppose that you’re going to use and in your object: you have 9 possibilities for the first noun (since you used 1 for the subject) , and 8 possibilities for the second one (since you used one for the subject, and you’ve already used one in the object).  So, with and, you have the following number of possibilities:

10 nouns * 10 verbs * (9 nouns + and + 8 nouns) = 1700 sentences

…and if you’re keeping track, that’s 900 + 1800 + 1700 sentences, or 4,400 sentences.

Of course, we’re not done with and yet–since you’ve learnt to use the plural forms of verbs, you can use and in the subject, too.  The calculation of the number of sentences that you can make with and in the subject (but just a single noun in the object) is similar to what we just did:

(10 nouns + and + 9 nouns) * 10 verbs * 8 nouns = 1520 sentences

…getting us to 5,920 sentences.

Of course, you can have two nouns in the subject and two nouns in the object, as well–you can do the math.  What’s cooler is that you can use and to join together two sentences, too.  Let’s take the “formula” that gave us the smallest number of sentences: singular subject, singular verb, singular object.  Remember how we calculated the number of sentences that we could make with only 10 nouns and 10 verbs:

10 nouns * 10 verbs * 9 nouns = 900 sentences

How many sentences can you make by joining two sentences together with and? The possible assumptions are numerous.  Can you repeat the subject?  Why not?  (Dogs chase cats and dogs chase balls.)  Can you repeat the object?  Why not?  (Dogs chase cats and children chase cats.)  Certainly those are weird, though, so let’s estimate that maybe 10% of our possibilities aren’t going to be OK, and just calculate from the numbers that we used for the simple declarative sentences.  That gives us this:

10 nouns * 10 verbs * 9 nouns and 10 nouns * 10 verbs * 9 nouns = 1800 sentences; subtract 10% of that for the ones that repeat too much and you still went from 900 sentences to 1620 sentences with just one additional word.

…in other words: as soon as you throw and into the mix at the level of sentences, you double the number of sentences that you can make.  (The last time we tried to total how many sentences we could make, we had 5,920.  Double that with and, subtract 10% for the sentences that repeat too much, and you have 10,656 sentences.)

What happens if you add or to your armamentarium?  You just doubled the number of sentences that you can make again.  How about throwing but in there?  You just doubled it again.  (We’re around 40,000 sentences right now, even with our 10% adjustment for repeated things.)  Add one more tense and you just…well, it just got really, really big.  And let’s review what you know–it’s very little:

  • 10 nouns, singular and plural
  • 10 verbs, singular and plural
  • two tenses
  • and
  • or
  • but

For those of us who are as math-challenged as I am: that’s 23 words and two tenses to give you around 40,000 sentences.  Throw in some adjectives…  Learn how to turn a simple declarative sentence into a question…  Learn a few names…  Learn to say he, she, and it…  Add because…  

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I know a hell of a lot more than 10 nouns and verbs in French, but it sure doesn’t feel like I know how to say very many things.  Remember, though: as we discussed recently, you can get a surprisingly long way on a pretty small amount of a language.  This is a skill that you can develop with practice: think about simple ways to communicate your wants and needs, and I bet you’ll come up with creative ways to work around your lack of knowledge of a language.

A technical excursus: recursion

When we got into and, we touched on an important mechanism of language that leads to the fact that every human language is capable of saying an infinite number of things.  Called recursion, it has a specific definition in mathematical formalism that you can find here; for our point of view, it means that some things in language that we care about, such as sentences, can be made up of other things of the same type.  For example, we used recursion when we made the sentence Dogs chase cats and dogs chase balls out of two sentences: dogs chase cats and dogs chase balls.  We could also use recursion to make noun phrases (the groups of words that make up the subjects and objects in our examples): the noun phrase my dog and your cat is made up of the noun phrase my dog and the noun phrase your cat.  In principle, is there any limit to this?  No, actually.  You would die before you could say an infinitely long sentence, and even if you could live long enough to hear one, by the time you got to the end you would most likely have forgotten the beginning.  But, that doesn’t change the fact that the language, by virtue of having this fundamental property of recursion, can produce an infinite number of things to say.

If no one could ever say an infinitely long sentence, who cares about understanding how and why languages can produce the things?  For one thing, infinity is a pretty big deal, and if you’re dealing with a system of any sort that’s capable of infinity, then if you want to be able to understand how it works, you need to understand that aspect of it.  I believe it was Chomsky (who in many ways was a horrible thing to have happen to linguistics) who made the analogy that just because no marathon runner can run forever doesn’t mean that it’s not useful and important to understand the physiological mechanisms that let them do it.

You made it this far?  Great!  Your reward is the New York Times Leak Template.  Read it and laugh–then go subscribe to a newspaper.  Keeping journalism alive is essential to getting the traitors that are currently running our federal government out of the White House.  Feeling geeky?  Calculate how many news stories about Trumpworld scandals this would generate–and ask yourself if that would be enough…

 White House Leak Template for Journalists

Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 7.16.58 AMScreen Shot 2017-06-18 at 7.17.13 AM

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Picture source:

Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement

The “covfefe” tweet. Picture source:

Donald Trump–also known as The Molester-In-Chief, Draft-Dodger-In-ChiefLiar-In-Chief, Traitor-In-Chief, and undoubtedly many similarly uncomplimentary epithets by the time our current national nightmare ends–has been nicely trolled by Representative Mike Quigley, D-Ill.  His COVFEFE Act–Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically For Engagement–aims to amend the Presidential Records Act to include the social media that Trump so loves to use to troll the rest of us.  The name of the act ridicules a stupid Trump tweet–see the picture above.  The Presidential Records Act defines the requirement that US presidential records be preserved.  Trump loves to communicate via social media, and also loves to flat-out deny ever having said things that he manifestly did, in fact, say–often on social media.  Quigley’s COVFEFE Act would define social media posts as presidential records, which would prevent Trump from deleting the evidence of his lies–at least the lies that he told on social media.  The Republican-controlled House of Representatives (roughly the American equivalent of the French Assemblée Nationale) will almost certainly block it, but in the meantime: the Troller-In-Chief has been nicely trolled.  You can read about the COVFEFE Act here–relevant French and English vocabulary explained below.

English notes

draft dodger: the draft is the mechanism for summoning people to obligatory military service.  A draft-dodger, then, is a person who illegally avoids joining the armed forces (Merriam-Webster).  Trump famously avoided military service during Vietnam by claiming to have flat feet, and then announced that he would be the most physically fit president ever.


French notes

le traiteur: this is one of the more puzzling words for newly-arrived Americans in France.  It appears all over Paris, most visibly on the signs of Chinese restaurants.  To us, it looks like the English word traitor.  However, it means something like “someone who sells prepared foods.” defines it as caterer, but as far as I can tell, it’s a lot more general than that.

le traître: traitor.


A little bit goes a long way

Picture source: Itchy Feet,

Behind the humor, there’s an important point in the comic that you’ll find above: you can get a lot of mileage out of a very small amount of knowledge of a language.  You need to be willing to be creative, and you need to be willing to say strange things on occasion, but think about something like this: if you can say something along the lines of “I would like to buy this” or “how much does this cost” and you have a functioning finger that will let you point at things, you no longer need to know the vocabulary for every single thing in the world that you might want to buy in France/China/Romania/wherever: if you can point at it, you can ask someone about it.  If I’m travelling someplace where I don’t expect to spend much time, but still want to learn a bit of the language, I use the Pimsleur courses.  They teach you no grammar, and only a very small vocabulary–but, with some practice at improvising, you can actually make a very small amount of knowledge of a language go a pretty long way.  I don’t have a huge sample here, but along with a friendly smile, this strategy has worked for me in…hm… seven countries that I can think of, off the top of my head.

  • China
  • Czech Republic
  • Holland (didn’t really need it there, as English is widely spoken and I speak it well, but it made people happy to hear an American making the effort)
  • Japan
  • Los Angeles, around Pico and Robinson, where plenty of people speak Farsi and are beyond tickled to hear a blue-eyed guy speaking it, even if he’s old, fat, and bald
  • Sweden (didn’t really need it there, as English is widely spoken and I speak it well, but it made people happy, although I must add that the Swedish course is the only worthless Pimsleur course I’ve ever found)
  • Turkey (Pimsleur actually taught me enough Turkish to have a hilarious interaction with a con woman)

One time in Germany, I used my Pimsleur-strength (which is to say: pretty weak) Turkish to chat with a Turkish cab driver, and when my colleagues and I got where we were going, he got out of the cab and hugged me.  This says nothing about my personal charm whatsoever–I don’t have any.  It does, however, say a lot about how much people who aren’t native speakers of English sometimes appreciate it when an Anglophone goes to the effort of learning even a little bit of their language.

Conflict of interest statement: I don’t have one.  Pimsleur doesn’t pay me anything to plug their stuff–pay to buy it.  Itchy Feet is a great comic, and you should totally subscribe–and no, they don’t pay me, either.

PITA ferret: the informal imperative

What’s a Jewish mother’s favorite metro station? Read to the end of the post and you’ll get the answer, plus a video of a ferret.

Picture source: the Le Coin du français blog.

I never stop being amazed at how basic some of the mistakes that I still make are, even after three and a half years of intensive study of la langue de Molière.  Case in point: the spelling of the tu form of the imperative.  The thing that you have to remember is that it doesn’t have an at the end–except when it does.

The wonderful Lawless French web site gives this explanation of the general rule (keep going for some exceptions):

The imperative tu conjugation for –er, –frir, and –vrir verbs is the present tense minus the final s.

Here are some examples from the Nouvel Obs’s (the form of this genitive explained below in the English notes) description of the informal imperative:

  • Rentre immédiatement !
  • Ne discute pas !
  • Va voir tes grands parents !

OK, an exception: when the verb is followed immediately by or en, you have an at the end.  Here’s the explanation from the Français Facile web site:

Cependant, devant « en » et « y » qui  suivent immédiatement le verbe, on ajoute un « s » au verbe en « er » à l’impératifsingulier, et on le joint par un trait d’union comme tous les pronoms qui suivent un impératif.

Ex. Amènes-y ta soeur.

Cette règle s’applique aussi au verbe « aller »

Ex. Vas-y.

Fiez-vous à votre oreille. Si vous prononcez le verbe et que le son vous paraît étrange, il peut y avoir un problème.

Mange-en, sans « s » sonnerait d’une façon étrange à l’oreille.

EX :

À Londres, vas-y si tu veux, mais amènes-y ta soeur et rapporte-moi un cadeau.


OK: that’s the “first group” verbs (-er)–we’ll return to the –frir and -vrir verbs that Laura mentions in a bit.  For -ir and -re verbs, the is always present.

Now: some exceptions.  First, as we’ve seen before, verbs that end in -frir or –vrir sometimes have odd behaviors.  (See this post if you want some insights into what they have in common, and how they differ phonologically from other –ir verbs.)  These verbs do not have an in the informal imperative…

  • Couvre ta bouche quand tu tousses, dégueu !

…except when they do, which is the same as when the first-group (-er) verbs do, i.e. when followed by en or y.

  • Couvres-en un peu avant d’attraper une pneumonie.  (Reverso)

(Native speakers: do you have dissenting opinions about this?  I had to ask around a bit…)

Almost at the end!  Just four verbs that are totally irregular in this respect:

  • Aller: Va te faire voir, but vas-y !
  • Être: always s-final: Sois beau et tais-toi.
  • Avoir: N’en aie pas marre, c’est bon pour les pépitos ! …but Aies-en de meilleures (notes), tes profs te féliciteront
  • Savoir: Sache qu’elle a vomi ce matin, alors que le thon était frais,  but saches-en plus pour réussir ton examen.

So, the Jewish mother: here’s the first joke I ever understood in French.  I’m minding my own business in the basement of a bar near the St-Sebastien Froissart metro station (none of your business why I was in the basement of a bar near the St-Sebastien Froissart metro station, or why I’m ever in the basement of any bar anywhere, for that matter) when I heard the following from the table behind me: La station de métro d’une mère juive, c’est laquelle ?  Monge, parce qu’elle dit “mange, mange, mon fils.”  In English: what’s a Jewish mother’s favorite metro station?  Monge, because she says “eat, eat (in French, mange, mange), my son.”  Now, this is interesting on a number of levels; the one that I’d like to point out is that it might only make sense to someone who does not speak hexagonal French, and that might be the only reason that I got it.  As a monolingual native speaker of English, I can’t hear the difference between the vowels of mange and Monge–we don’t have contrasting nasalized vowels in English, and those two in particular are particularly impossible for me to hear, and pretty tough to pronounce, too, leading me to say things like marde, je t’ai trempée (“shit, I got you wet”–marde is a Canadianism that I can’t seem to get past) and getting responses like “but we’re not going out together!”…which suggests that I pronounce it as je t’ai trompée, “I cheated on you.”   I’ll throw in to the mix the fact that I’m told that pieds-noirs (the pieds-noirs, “black feet,” are the French who returned to France after France lost Algeria as a colony in 1962–maybe 800,000 people) don’t differentiate between the nasalized vowels an and on, either.  Not surprising–differences in the nasalized vowel inventory are a common feature of francophone dialect differentiation, including in France.  What does this joke have to do with the subject of this post?  It only works with the informal imperative, i.e. mange, mange (“eat, eat”)–with the formal or plural imperative (mongez, mongez), “eat” doesn’t sound anything at all like the name of the metro station (Monge), and you have no joke.

Here’s a video that has approximately a bazillion examples of the informal imperative.  There’s a bit of vocabulary that might help you out here, if you’re not a native speaker of French:

  • le furet : ferret.
  • relou : here’s the best I can do for a definition of this word, which I haven’t found in a French-English dictionary as of yet: Relou” est un mot verlan (langage des rues semblable à un ver lent grignotant doucement… ) signifiant “lourd”. Dans un contexte particulier, désigne une action/personne qui a fait/dit une chose qui a déplu à l’émetteur de ce mot.  Source:  The source gives these synonyms: casse-couille (familier), chiant (familier), casse-pied, and lourd.  So: maybe irritating, or “pain in the ass?”

English notes

PITA: a less-shocking way of saying “pain in the ass.”  This is something somewhat more than annoying.  Assembling the appropriate forms in order to be able to fill out the forms that you need in order to get permission to ask for (more) permission from the Dean’s office before doing any international travel is a PITA.  (I’m talking about America here–everything you’ve ever heard about French bureaucracy being worse than American bureaucracy is bullshit, period.)  My old neighbor was a PITA–always complaining if anyone parked in front of her house, although she didn’t have a car.  The constant flood of papers that you have to review when you’re on Christmas vacation is a PITA.  The ferret in the video is being a PITA to the cats–hence relou.

An excellent example, both using and defining the abbreviation:

Of course, if we can have an example with a cat, all the better, seeing as how we’re on the Interwebs and all…

A geeky example, but a very good one–you could hear this around my lab in the US any day of the week:

 and now you have to know what this means:

Any day of the week: (at) any time.

An idiot:

Gratuitous picture of a guy with no shirt on:

Obama at Hiroshima: American English listening practice

My judo friends cry at Hiroshima, and they are a hell of a lot tougher than I am.

I know some really, really tough young people.  Guys and girls, they all are, or recently have been, nationally-ranked judo players.  These are kids who have, for most of their lives (typically they started at 5 years of age), spent two hours straight, three times a week, getting pounded into a thin tatami.  They spend their weekends going to tournaments where they walk onto a mat with a stranger who will try to slam them into that mat again–hard.  These are the bravest, toughest, strongest people I know–and also probably the kindest.  At some point in their studies, we try to send them to Japan to study for the summer.  While they’re there, they go to visit Hiroshima.  When they visit Hiroshima, they do the same thing that I did in Nagasaki–they cry.

The “hold” of a ship is a big empty space belowdecks where you can transport things in bulk–see the compartment labelled 10 in this illustration. Picture source:

When I was a child, I didn’t have books of my own–so, I read my father’s books.  He has always been into first-person accounts of survival in conditions of crisis, and we had piles of relevant books around the house, so that’s what I grew up reading about.  Consequently, long before puberty I knew about the two philosophies of how to manage the limited resources of your once-a-month Red Cross package in a German prisoner of war camp; the mechanics of soup distribution in Soviet gulags; and what it feels like to watch a buddy die of dehydration in the hold of a Japanese prisoner transport ship.  My point: I know what happened in that war, and I know who did what to whom.  I also understand that dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki prevented the almost inconceivable bloodbath that an amphibious invasion of Japan–and the nationwide bombing that would have preceded it–would have brought to the world.  And still: I cried at Nagasaki.  My judo friends cry at Hiroshima, and they are a hell of a lot tougher than I am.  Life is complicated, people are complicated, the world is complicated.  Be as zen as you like: anything of interest is still going to be complicated.  Simplistic bullshit is just that: simplistic bullshit.

Of the four language skills–speaking, listening, reading, and writing–none is harder than listening.  Want to practice your American English listening skills?  You could do worse than this beautiful, complex, and subtitled speech by former President Barack Obama.  The vocabulary is quite advanced; in recompense, his pronunciation is clear and beautiful.  I checked the subtitles up to 8:20, and they’re quite good.  It’s pathetically depressing to contrast the infantile rants of Trump with the nuanced thought and articulate self-expression of President Obama; it’s even more depressing to think that your own country could have experienced an Obama, and then turned around and elected a Trump, a king of simplistic bullshit…  French notes after the video.

French notes

La cale d’un navire est l’espace où sont entreposées les marchandises, le produit de la pêche ou autres entités transportées (lest). Elle se situe sous le pont et est recouverte par un panneau de cale s’appuyant sur des hiloires.  (Wikipédia)

entreposer: to store, to stock; to put in a customs-bonded warehouse (I don’t know what that means, but Word Reference says it’s so)

le lest: ballast.  The is pronounced, so don’t confuse this with leste…

Match the contexts: Could life be more random?

Could life be more random?  I certainly don’t know how.  

Could life be more random?  I certainly don’t know how.

What does it even mean to be “random?”  From a technical perspective, randomness exists when every “outcome” has an equal likelihood of occurring.  For example: you flip a coin.  There are two possible “outcomes” of the coin toss: heads, and tails.  The chances of heads: 50%.  The chances of tails: 50%.  50% = 50%, so each of the two outcomes has an equal likelihood of occurring.  It happens that in language, there is very, very little that could be described as “random”–bring up the topic of centaurs, and the likelihood of the word horse occurring is a hell of a lot larger than the likelihood of the word ICBM occurring.  (Technically, this is a lack of conditional independence.  More on that another time, perhaps.)

A nasty lube oil settling tank. Picture source:

Life, though–life feels pretty damn random.  Is it, really?  It depends.  Certainly we have mechanisms for telling ourselves that it isn’t.  Your friendly neighborhood tarot reader pulls a card out of a shuffled deck: random event, or the Powers That Be sending you a message?   Roland Barthes gets run down by a car: random death, or divine punishment?  (Or assassination?)  Conversely, we often rely on it being, in fact, random.  You and your mates draw straws to decide who has to clean the lube oil settling tank that month?  The entire thing is predicated on the idea that everyone in the engine room has an equal chance of drawing the short straw–of the outcome being random.

In general, the words that show up on this blog are the words that I ran into the day before.  When I come across a new word, I record it, look it up, and then make a flash card for it the next morning while I’m having that first cup of coffee.  Unless you find new words to learn by randomly flipping through dictionaries, you come across lexical items in some context that makes those words more or less likely to occur.  Can you guess the contexts in which I came across these little beauties yesterday?

  1.  A conversation about the relationships between neighborhoods and their schools in France and in the US
  2. My walk to the lab
  3. Someone walked into a wall
  4. I’m rewriting the ending of Les liaisons dangereuses (one of the great masterpieces of the literature of the world, but with an ending that could have been so, so much better)–two of the words are related to this context
  5. I wanted to know something about themes in classical Greek statuary


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