Vocabulary makeover, please

Zipf’s Law: The frequency of a word is related exponentially to its rank in a frequency-ordered list. Practically speaking, this means that an adult studying a second language will run across words that they don’t know every day of their life.

To paraphrase Newton: if I speak better French than other Americans, it is only because I spend more time memorizing vocabulary.  My daily, daily, daily morning ritual: with my first cigarette and cup of coffee, I memorize 10 new words.  Zipf’s Law being what it is, I don’t exactly have to go hunting for words that I don’t know—over the course of the day, I note down every new word that I come across, and the next morning, I pick 10 of them to cram into the small amount of remaining space in my much-abused brain.

My go-to dictionaries are WordReference.com, followed by the Farlex French dictionary app.  If I’m pretty sure that I need more context, I go to the Sketch Engine web site if I have Internet access, and Linguee if I don’t.  Pretty straightforward, my little routine.  Quotidian.  Mundane.

Every once in a while, though, it does not yield the desired result.  Case in point: capillotracté.  Not in Word Reference, not in Farlex French.  So: Google… which gets me definitions that I don’t understand, because they make reference to an expression that I don’t understand: tirer quelqu’un par les cheveux.  And so, dear Readers: can you help an amerloque out?

My odyssey started in a place where you don’t expect to see casual use of language: Le Figaro.  The Fig’ is one of the Big 3 French newspapers, along with Libération (left) and Le Monde (center).  As you have probably guessed, Le Figaro is to the right of center.  Like many conservative people, it gets excited about prescribing language usage.  I don’t get excited about prescribing language usage, but I do get excited about language, so although I subscribe to Le Monde (I’m a lefty myself, but I figure that I’ll get the most representative sample of vocabulary more towards the center)I will often go to the Fig’ to read its language articles.  As you might expect from prescriptivists, they tend to be…precise.  Clear.  Unambiguous.  (Si ce n’est pas clair, ce n’est pas français, right?  Harumph.).

So, I’m reading an article on the subject of how to refer to Line 1 of the Paris metro—ligne un, or ligne une?—when I come across a word that I don’t know. I promptly copy it, along with the context in which I saw it, onto an index card (something that does not exist in France–see this post on the mystery):

The next morning, I go to look it up–and find nothing. Word Reference: no love. The Farlex French dictionary app: nope. Fine–I go to Google. I find definitions there, but they all refer to an expression whose meaning is opaque to me: tirer quelqu’un par les cheveux. For example:



How about it, native speakers?  Can you help an amerloque out?  I’d pull my hair out over this, but I’m already bald…

The rule dit capillotracté?  Ligne un, because it’s a number, not the indefinite article.  The indefinite article un/une is inflected for gender, but the number un is not.

French notes

l’amerloque: American, person or language; noun or adjective. Familier et péjoratif.  Wiktionnaire alleges that it comes from Amérique plus oque, providing no evidence; I therefore claim equal plausibility for my own little theory, which is that it comes from Amérique plus locuteur.  Examples from Wiktionnaire, from which I stole them quite gleefully ’cause I don’t like their etymology:

  • […] mais c’est pas un spectacle pour une dame, rigola le jeunot à la casquette amerloque. — (Léo MaletLes rats de Montsouris, 1955)
  • Nom de Dieu, quand est-ce que tu vas arrêter de parler l’amerloque ? — (Sébastien Monod, Rue des Deux Anges, 2005)

English notes

makeover: “An overall treatment to improve something or make something more attractive or appealing.” (Source: American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. (2011). Retrieved September 11 2018 from https://www.thefreedictionary.com/makeover.)  There is an enormous quantity of makeover-themed TV shows.  Don’t judge me.

consult (noun): As a noun, this is stressed on the first syllable: CONsult.  consult is when you send someone or something to an expert, typically in a medical context.  For example, if you go to your doctor and they are pretty sure that you are having a neurological problem, they might tell their clerk to set you up with a neurology consult.  

In coming up with a title for this article, I thought about Vocabulary consult versus Vocabulary makeover.  The former would make a hell of a lot more sense, but since the word that I’m asking you to help me with has something to do with hair, I went for Vocabulary makeover.  Don’t like my choice?  Write your own fucking blog on the implications of the statistical properties of language for second-language learners.

to pull one’s hair out (over something): to have reached the point of frustration with a problem and still be unable to solve it.  Examples:

Bill, can you help me?  I’m pulling my hair out here… Every time I call the constructor, I get a “String Index Out Of Bounds” error, which makes no sense to me whatsoever…   

Dude, I’m pulling out my hair out over this budget. Every time I try to include the annual COL increase for salaries, the spreadsheet doubles the amount allotted for travel to the American Medical Informatics Association annual meeting. What the FUCK?? 

How I used it in the post: How about it, native speakers?  Can you help an amerloque out?  I’d pull my hair out over this, but I’m already bald…

Dear God: This morning I brushed my teeth with coffee

Dear God,

This morning I brushed my teeth with coffee because I couldn’t find any clean water.

Dear God,

This morning I brushed my teeth with coffee because I couldn’t find any clean water.  It got me thinking how nice it would be if You would help everybody have clean water.  Don’t get me wrong–I do love coffee, and brushing your teeth with it actually works pretty well!  But, there are a lot of kids around here, and I’ll bet that it would be really nice for them to have clean water every day.

To give You some context: Guatemala does not have national-level regulation of anything related to water–availability, safety, or anything else that I’ve been able to find.  Having a water connection into your home is nowhere near universal in cities, and in rural areas, it’s less common than using a well or other naturally-occurring water source: 52% of the rural population lives in residences that are not connected to a water supply, as does 13% of the urban population (see this paper).  The groundwater here can be contaminated with arsenic, as can clay water filters.  Bacterial and viral contaminants abound–coliform bacteria, norovirus, cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid–You name it, we’ve got it.  Your children here do try to take care of themselves in this respect, but it’s technically difficult–one study here of homes that boil their drinking water found that 29% of boiled water still has unsafe levels of fecal bacteria.  (If You really wanna get freaked out, note that the clay filters that some households (and the vast majority of visitors such as myself) rely on here lose their “disinfection efficacy” over time, and there is exactly no way whatsoever to evaluate this by looking at them.)  The number of ways that Your children’s water supply can get contaminated is far larger than I would have guessed, including–ironically, I think–heavy rainfall, which can wash nasty stuff into wells.

Original photo caption: “Wells without headwalls such as this one can easily fill with foul water. They also present a fall risk for young children, as has been reported by residents.” Source: Eisenhauer et al. 2016, https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/45/3/677/2572651

I know that You are busy, but if You have a bit of free time on your hands, this would be a cool thing to pay attention to.  As I mentioned, brushing your teeth with coffee actually works pretty well.  But, Your children here are really trying–if You could help a bit with this and the many other medical problems that plague this country, it would be super-cool.


Beauregard Zipf

English notes

you name it: an expression means something like anything whatsoever, anything that you can think of.  Some examples:

How I used it in the post: Bacterial and viral contaminants abound–coliform bacteria, norovirus, cholera, hepatitis A, typhoid–You name it, we’ve got it.  

Once a year I spend a week as an English/Spanish interpreter in Guatemala with Surgicorps, a group that providers free surgical services to people for whom even the almost-free national health care system is still too expensive.  If you enjoy my posts from “Guate,” please consider supporting our work here.  Our volunteers pay all of the costs of their own involvement–we buy our own plane tickets, pay for our food and lodging, etc., and donate all of our services.  Your donation goes straight to supporting surgeries, pre- and post-op care for our patients, and lodging for the family members that accompany them here.  You don’t have to give much to help a lot–$250 US pays all of the costs of surgery for one patient, and $10 US pays for all of the pain medications that we will send patients home with the entire week.  Follow this link to donate–a small donation is a great way to make your day better!

The motor homunculus goes to Guatemala

Whether you’re a linguist like me and you focus on the organs of speech, or you’re a physician who focuses on the hand, the amount of brain “real estate” that is devoted to each of them reflects the fact that both of them are central to being a human being.

The odd guy in this picture?  He’s “the motor homunculus.”  The picture represents the proportions of the motor cortex that are dedicated to controlling the movements of the parts of our body whose movements we can control.  The motor cortex is a part of the outer layer of the brain that is used for controlling movement.  Note that not all parts of the body get equal amounts of brain dedicated to them.  Some get more than others, and the relative sizes of the body parts in the picture reflect those unequal amounts.  Which parts get the most?

  1. The organs of speech
  2. The hand

For decades, people like me have been showing this figure to our Linguistics 101 students and saying: you can tell how important the organs of speech are because as much of the motor cortex is devoted to them as to the control of our hands.  Neurologist Frank Wilson sees it the other way around, though.  His take on it: you can tell how important the hands are because as much of the motor cortex is devoted to them as to the control of our organs of speech.  I like that–it’s always interesting when people see things the opposite of the way that do.

How do we know how much of the brain is devoted to any organ?  It all goes back to a Canadian-American neurosurgeon by the name of Wilder Penfield.  Penfield was a pioneer of modern brain surgery.  He developed a procedure for treating epilepsy by finding the region of the patient’s brain from which the unfortunate electrical storms originate, and destroying it.  When you’re doing this, you don’t want to destroy a part of the brain that carries out some irreplaceable function, so Penfield developed a procedure for stimulating parts of a patient’s brain and watching what happened.

The oropharynx–just the beginning of the sophisticated and complicated process of swallowing. Spelling error: that should be PHARYNGEAL wall. Source: https://goo.gl/eBxzQJ

Now, I know what you’re thinking: but, you can’t see everything that might happen–it’s not like you can watch someone’s pharynx and see what part of the brain we use to control the incredibly complicated process of swallowing a bite of pizza.  That’s a good point.  As Dr. Peter Pressman, a neurologist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told me:

You’re right, Zipf–he didn’t exactly pull up each individual muscle.  More like “hand, arm, throat, etc.”  His was a rough map, though revolutionary at the time.  It turns out that more recent work using functional magnetic resonance imaging has led to essentially the same findings–Penfield’s work was amazing.

The take-home point: whether you’re a linguist like me and want to focus on the organs of speech, or a physician who wants to focus on the hand, the amount of brain “real estate” that is devoted to each of them reflects the fact that both of them are central to being a human being.

Dr. Courtney Retzer-Vargo making a splint.

Once a year I travel to Guatemala with Surgicorps, a group of surgeons, therapists, nurses, and anesthesiologists who spend a week donating free surgical services for people for whom the almost-free national health care system is too expensive.  We bring with us specialists who can perform techniques that are beyond the skills of the local surgeons.  The team includes Dr. David Kim, who specializes in hand surgery, and Dr. Courtney Retzer-Vargo, an occupational therapist who specializes in rehabilitation of the hand.  These are both exceptionally rare skill sets–Dr. Kim did two separate four-year fellowships (in plastic surgery and in orthopedics) to learn his trade, and Dr. Retzer-Vargo is one of a very small number of people in the world with her specialized skills.  Their work is an important part of what we do because giving someone back the ability to use their hands can mean keeping them alive in this country where most work is manual labor, and if you don’t work, you starve–as do your children.

Surgicorps members pay for their own travel, lodging, and food on these missions–and donate a week of vacation time (that’s a lot in the United States), as well as their professional services.  Donations from generous people like you go entirely to covering the costs of the surgeries and pre- and post-operative care.  This includes supplies, oxygen and anesthetic gases, medications, lab work, and lodging for the family members who accompany them on the long trip to the facility out of which we work.  To give you some perspective: the cost of surgery for one patient works out to $250.  $100 pays for four surgical packs.  $10 pays for all of the pain medications that we will send our patients home with this week.  Want to help?  Follow this link to make a donation–you’ll be surprised at how good it will make you feel.

English notes

homunculusa small man.  The concept of tiny little people was an important but wrong idea about how exactly our physical bodies get made: before we actually knew anything about embryology, the idea that we start out as so-tiny-that-we’re-invisible fully formed humans whose development consists simply of getting bigger seemed to make about as much sense as anything else.  (This idea is known as preformation–see the Wikipedia article about it for its history.)

Later conceptions of the homunculus have focussed on the extent to which we can think of it as a “representation” of the human–something that lets us think logically about people by simplifying them down to the elements that are essential to whatever it is that we’re trying to figure out about them.  For example, the motor homunculus simplifies the human to a set of purposeful movements.  Every representation has its benefits–in this case, the ability to have a 1200-word discussion about what the brain can tell us about the parts of humans that are most important to making them…human.  Representations also have their costs.  For example, representing an entire human being as a motor homunculus doesn’t let us say anything about why a human might want to move something.  Life always has its trade-offs–how about trading a few of your spare dollars/euros/quetzales for the warm feeling of contributing to Surgicorps making it possible for a woman to cook her child’s tortillas in the morning, or for a man to earn the money to send that child to school?  Click here to donate.



Rocks and Ravel: On the ranges of functions of the human hand

Think about how differently the hand has to function for a rock climber, versus a classical pianist.

You’ll often read dilettantes in the field of evolution talk about “the” function of this or that organ, structure, or whatever.  I say “dilettantes” because it’s simplistic to think in terms of one function for any part of an organism.

Consider the human hand.  Think about how differently it has to function for these two kinds of people:

  1. A rock climber
  2. A classical pianist

These two folks have to develop their hands to do two things that are essentially polar opposites.  To wit:

  1. rock climber: …needs his fingers to be able to (a) support a lot of weight, for (b) prolonged periods of time, in (c) the same position.
  2. classical pianist: …needs his fingers to be able to (a) move rapidly, (b) across a wide range of forces, (c) with great precision.
Source: By zaui/Scott Catron – https://www.flickr.com/photos/zaui/4455991107/in/photostream/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17114225

Being able to keep his fingers in the same spot with a lot of weight on them for a long time is what lets a rock climber figure out his next move without plunging into the abyss–presumably to his depth.  Being able to execute very subtle variations in pressure across a wide variety of speeds (see the English notes below for what the verb to execute means in this context) is what allows a classical pianist to express what we call “emotion” in a piece of music.  “The” function of the hand?  It’s an incredibly complex organ capable of many different functions, you dilettante.  (I’m speaking to some hypothetical wanker who thinks they know something about evolution here, not to you, dear reader.)

I always think about Frank Wilson’s observations on the rock climber versus the pianist in his book The Hand  when I head to Guatemala the first week in August.  I spend one week a year in Antigua, Guatemala, where I serve as an interpreter for a group of surgeons, technicians, nurses, therapists, and anesthesiologists who provide free specialized surgeries for people for whom the almost-free Guatemalan health care system is still too expensive.  A lot of that time I spend with a hand surgeon and with a therapist who specializes in rehabilitation after hand surgery.  Wilson’s observations about the very different kinds of demands that we can place on our hands come to mind in this context because, as Dr. David Kim, our hand surgeon, puts it,

The number one goal in hand surgery is restoration of function.  People can differ quite a bit in terms of the kinds of functions that they carry out with their hands, so I don’t necessarily address the same problems with the same surgical technique.  A tailor and a farm worker need to be able to do very different things in order to return to the normal functions of their lives, and I keep that in mind when I am determining the best surgical approach to addressing their problems.

The majority of people in Guatemala have two options in life:

  1. Do manual labor
  2. Starve to death

So, when the Surgicorps team gives someone back the lost function of their hand, it is not just a surgical procedure–it is allowing that person to not starve to death, and perhaps to make it possible for their children to go to school–and thus have a few more options in life than the two that I listed above.  Would you like to help support what we do here?  Our volunteers pay all of the costs of their own involvement–we buy our own plane tickets, pay for our food and lodging, etc., and donate all of our services.  Your donation goes straight to supporting surgeries, pre- and post-op care for our patients, and lodging for the family members that accompany them here.  You don’t have to give much to help a lot–$250 US pays all costs of surgery for one patient, and $10 US pays for all of the pain medications that we will send patients home with the entire week.  Follow this link to donate–a small donation is a great way to make your day better!

English notes

to executeone of the meanings of this word is to perform or carry out some action.  How I used it in the post: Being able to execute very subtle variations in pressure across a wide variety of speeds is what allows a classical pianist to express what we call “emotion” in a piece of music. 

to death: this prepositional phrase is a structurally unusual way of expressing the idea of dying due to a specific cause or being killed by a specific method.  Here are some examples from Sketch Engine, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them.

  • 400 people then broke through the barrier and stamped the soldiers to death“Stamped…to death” means that they killed the soldiers by stomping on them.  (Yes: “to stomp.”  From Merriam-Webster: “to strike or beat forcibly with the bottom of the foot.”)
  • Anything approved today will not be implemented until next August at the earliest, but people cannot be left without aid for such a long period unless they are supposed to starve to death. “To starve to death” means to die by starvation.
  • On July 10th , 1941, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, at least 340 Jewish citizens were murdered – burned to death in a locked barn after having been publicly beaten and humiliated in the town square – not, as one might have expected, by the country’s Nazi occupiers but by a group of twenty-three Polish men, acting, more or less enthusiastically (“more” seems likely), at the instigation of the German gendarmerie, who were on hand to shoot down anyone who tried to escape from the barn. “Burned to death” means that they were killed by burning.



Marde…and Kraft Dinner

I don’t even wanna think about what’s in that orange powder, but the stuff is strangely tasty.

Being the North American that I am, you would think that my French would be sprinkled with Canadianisms.  Not really: there are some words that I learned from Québécois and can’t seem not to pronounce like them–poussiaire when I should be saying poussière, lampadaillere when I should be saying lampadaire, and drette when I should be saying…well, actually I don’t know how to say drette in hexagonal French, which is why I say it in Québécois.  Some little stuff like that, but otherwise, you wouldn’t take me for a Canadian–ever.  (Well, there was this one incident on the métro… another time, perhaps.)

One exception to the general non-Canadianness of my (feeble) French: marde.  As an expletive, merde in Québec is…marde.  Why?  No clue.  Why is it what comes out of my mouth if I spill my coffee, drop my vocabulary flashcards on the RER B, or notice that I left my laundry in the washing machine overnight and now they’re moldy as fuck?  Also no clue.  But, if you wanna hear marde straight outta (outta explained in the English notes below) the mouth of an autochtone, you won’t find anything better than a recording of Québécoise superstar Lisa Leblanc.  She has a delightful accent–I believe from Newfoundland, given her pronunciation of words like gars as “guh.”  There are approximately one bazillion YouTube videos of her singing this song; I like this one because of her backup singers.  Linguistic mystery: why connes and not cons in

A matin mon lit simple fait sûr de me rappeler que je dors dans un lit simple avec les springs qui m’enfoncent dans le dos // Comme des connes…

…or maybe I’m just hearing it wrong?  Phil dAnge?  In any case: enjoy Lisa LeBlanc’s Ma vie c’est de la marde, and then scroll down to the English notes for a discussion of outta, plus a special bonus explanation of Kraft Dinner.  Why?  Keep reading, keep reading…


English notes

outta: an informal spoken form of “out of.”  Click here for a good video about how to use it.  It’s not typically written, but if it is, it’ll be o-u-t-t-a.  

Kraft Dinner: a disgusting but completely delicious kind of macaroni and cheese.  You buy it in a box, boil the pasta, sprinkle an envelope of orange powder on it, throw in some butter and some milk… I don’t even wanna think about what’s in that orange powder, but the stuff is strangely tasty, and at 25 cents a box the last time I checked (which was probably the last time that I could only afford 25 cents for dinner), you can live on it for surprisingly long.  Why it’s relevant to us today: it’s the title of a truly lovely Lisa LeBlanc song.

Au pire on vivra ensemble // En mangeant du Kraft Dinner // C’est tout ce qu’on a besoin…


Want to learn to speak Québécois?  Free lessons hereHilarious, and actually pretty helpful…

I’ll have your baby anyway: Sally Folk

The rest mostly make me think about shooting myself–in a *good* way.

What surprises Americans: when I tell them how much, in general, the French love our country.  But, the complaints about all of the English language used in France… The movie subsidies… The laws about how much French-language music has to be played on the radio…  They miss what seems to me the obvious inference: the government support for French cinema, the laws requiring that at least some French-language music show up on the radio, the complaints (from almost no one) about the invasion of the English language–they’re all there because the French love to mix some English with their daily language, because they love American movies, because they know American music better than I do (I’m an American).  The “cultural exception” that allows the French government to financially promote French films and music is there precisely because left to their own devices, many French will consume American entertainment media almost exclusively, and the indigenous entertainment industry would croak (slang for “die”–maybe equivalent to crever?).  No stereotype is true of everyone–but, this one applies to a lot of French people.

sally-folk-deuxieme-acteThe latest evolution of the laws regarding French-language music on French radio: you can’t just play the same French-language songs over and over again.  Radio stations are required to play a certain percentage of French music.  Many stations have tended to fulfill that requirement by just playing the same classics repeatedly, which makes no one happy.  The radio stations’ excuse: there just isn’t that much good new French-language music.

This is bullshit.  Quebec is at the center of a number of the interesting things happening with respect to French, and one of them is music.  There are some really good–amazing, even, to my ears–Québécois musicians putting out new albums all the time.  I would categorize (’cause us French do love to taxonomize shit) them roughly as follows:

  • singer-songwriters
  • “folk” musicians
  • straightforward rock-and-rollers
  • pop

Picture source: http://www.lapresse.ca/arts/musique/entrevues/201503/20/01-4854035-sally-folk-deja-au-deuxieme-acte.php

One of the most interesting of the singer-songwriters: Sally Folk.  She is an ineffably adorable pint-sized brunette who rocks a 1960s glam/girl-group look.  A couple of her songs are the sort of perky, happy tunes that you might expect from someone who looks like that–and the rest are dark, sophisticated, dark, complicated, dark… Did I say “dark”?  One that stirred up a lot of controversy when her third album recently came out is J’aurai ton enfant quand même, “I’ll have your baby anyway,” in which the narrative voice (is that the term?) talks about how she knows that her guy doesn’t want to have a kid, and the relationship is ending, but she’s gotten pregnant anyway.  On dira aux autres is (as far as I can tell) about a hook-up: on dira aux autres qu’on se connaissait déjà, “we’ll tell the others that we already knew each other.”  Nous sommes heureux infidèles: about an affair, obviously.  I don’t even understand her song La cigogne–my French isn’t that good–but it makes me blue every time I hear it.  (I think it’s maybe about a miscarriage?  Phil d’Ange?)  Certes, j’ai fait quelques erreurs//De jugement comme de pudeur–yep, that’s me alright…  Check ‘er out, and scroll down for the English notes, where we’ll discuss perky, to be left to one’s own devices, and to have one’s druthers.

A rare song that sounds as cheery as Sally Folk looks.  The rest mostly make me think about shooting myself–in a good way.

Try not to think too much about the words in this one–if a better expression of regret has ever been sung, I really don’t want to hear it…

Sally Folk at her “just don’t give a fuck” best (thanks for that expression, L.):

English notes

perky: this adjective can refer to two things, and in those cases, the meanings are quite different.

When it refers to someone’s personality or attitude, it means…well, here are the synonyms from Merriam-Webster:

Screen Shot 2018-07-19 at 05.10.24…and its antonyms, also from Merriam-Webster:

Screen Shot 2018-07-19 at 05.12.17

Seems like a pretty positive word, right?  And, it most certainly can be–I strive to always be perky, personally.  But, culturally, it’s a bit more complicated: perky is often used to describe some who is annoyingly activy, airy, animated, bouncy, etc.  Looking up the word on the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, I see that the adverbs with the strongest statistical associations to perky are:

  1. annoyingly
  2. unnaturally
  3. impossibly
  4. delightfully
  5. relentlessly

Delightfully is, of course, good; annoyingly most definitely is not.

So, that’s the meaning when you’re talking about someone’s personality or attitude.  The other meaning applies in reference to a woman’s breasts.  I just showed you the top adverbs associated with perky–when you look at the top nouns, 9 out of 12 of them refer to a woman’s breasts or nipples, one of them refers to butts, and the other two are probably language processing errors.  If you can’t intuit the meaning in this context, Google perky breasts, but do not, not, not do so at work.

It’s almost 5:30 AM in Australia and I have to talk about the Cold War origins of biomedical natural language processing (who knew?) at 9–and I’m too lazy to write up to have one’s druthers and to be left to one’s own devices.  Disappointed?  Say so in the comments.  Or, even better: write them up yourself!