Tag Archives: Language

Twice-Baked Bread and Half-Baked Thoughts


zwieback toast

noun zwie·back \ˈswē-ˌbak, ˈswī-, ˈzwē-, ˈzwī-, -ˌbäk\
: a dry, hard bread that is eaten especially by young children

I lost the Third Annual Cabin Fever Spelling Bee held at the Kellogg Hubbard Library.

Lost early on. The kind of early on that is a tad embarrassing, with tad here meaning “a whole lot.”

Judging from many of the subsequent words, if not early on I would have lost later on. The competition was humbling and props to Robbie Harold who won it. Won it again, I should add. It was amazing hearing her and the other spellers spell, often doing so rapidly and with mind-blowing certainty.

My particular losing word — zwieback — was a word I had never heard before and my misspelling of it revealed that ignorance to the audience. But it also revealed some interesting ways my brain works; though not to the audience, of course, who, being outside of me, could only see its dismal output accompanying a somewhat gormless expression.

My thoughts started with crackers.

Word-Pronouncer Sydney Lea included crackers in his definition of the word. He said a lot of other descriptive words, mentioning them being inedible and how he remembered his grandmother always had them around.

He likely mentioned bread, too, but, after briefly and tangentially thinking of my maternal grandparents, candy orange slices and other weird candies that only seemed to be present at their house and always in little glass dishes,  I zeroed in on crackers.

My mind started sifting through different crackers sold at Shaw’s; specifically, the ones loosely collected in my head under the category “crackers with weird names.” Matzo and wasi came most immediately to mind, along with Melba toast, which sound nothing like zwieback, but still…

Although zwieback didn’t sound familiar, perhaps I had at least glanced at them while stocking items in its shelf vicinity. No matter that for Wasi I should have been thinking Wasa; I could picture the three kinds – multi-grain, sourdough, and light rye – on the shelf and tried to see other neighboring crackers.

But instead Wasi encouraged wasabi to hijack my thinking, tossing me over to a different aisle. Wasabi is a real word, but it is a plant and has nothing to do with crackers. Though wasabi peas are stocked in the oriental foods section, where KA-ME offers three kinds of rice crackers, which are called… er, rice crackers.

No help there…

Abandoning this path, I tried to focus on the sound of the word, hoping to make a good guess. But zwī is not a common sound in English and I couldn’t think of what letters plopped together could create it. The closest I came to the sound was zī as in Zygote, which I knew wasn’t right even as I spelled zwieback Z-Y-B-A-C-K.

Ironically, in a too-late-to-be-of-use fashion, as soon as Sydney started spelling it correctly, Z – W –, my mind partially blocked him out and went “Oh, yeah, duh” recalling my rudimentary college German and proceeding to unhelpfully count in German:


Where the German word for two has both the sound and spelling I had needed. Or so I had thought until I started writing this post and research showed the correct word has I before E, following the infamous except before c English Language rule. So even if I had remembered my German, I would have likely gotten it wrong, catching the beginning zw and messing up the subsequent ie by following Zwei.

Though to be fair, a Google search shows quite a few people mistakenly spelling it zweiback. A mistake perhaps compounded by the word, meaning literally twice-baked, coming from the German word for two, zwei.

On the other hand, one source says zwie is a variant of zwei. Another source even claims the word zwieback comes originally from German zweiback. I cannot yet locate an authoritative source on its true etymology.

But in contemporary usage – eg. Nabisco and Amazon.de, it is I before E.

Still, the pronunciation can be either a long I or a long E sound, adding to the trickiness, with the latter sound appearing in rule-breaking words like seize. Then again, maybe it isn’t so rule-breaking after all; soft C and S sound alike, so I before E, except after a (soft) C sound.

Neither ie nor ei follows C when it is hard, which means when C sounds like K not S.

Kome to think of it, why do we even have a C in our language? Kouldn’t we rely on K’s and S’s?

For CH’s, maybe? If so, why not have it simply – and always — be that sound and dispense with needing the H with it? We could even redesign the letter altogether and call it see-aytch in homage to ß.

Maybe we keep it as is just so we can have the I before E except after C rule.

Though that would be weird.

Joyful Reading


Read this sentence.

Okay, now see that same sentence without reading it. That is, only see lines and curves and closed spaces. Hard, isn’t it? Maybe impossible. It’s far easier to read it. So much so, when you see the sentence “Read this sentence”, you can’t help but see it as something to be read, and automatically do so.

In fact, as you are reading this blog, it is likely that you are hardly noticing the individual letters as your brain —  like with no longer seeing lines and curves and enclosed spaces unless specifically asked to do so — automatically perceives whole words (or more!) instead.

Stop and consider how bizarre yet wonderful that is. Once we learn how to read, and especially read well, it becomes so entrenched in our mental processing we scarcely notice this altogether extraordinary achievement.

And it is an achievement. It is something you didn’t possess at birth and had to be learned. A likely part of that learning involved folks reading to you and, if all went well, cultivating delight in the written word and all that it offers.

Today I had the pleasure of experiencing that early period of childhood development first hand. Starting my volunteering for Outreach at the Kellogg Hubbard Library, I went with its program veteran Ray to take books to All Together Now Community Arts Center for the preschool it operates.

The kids, mostly two- and three-years-olds, greeted our arrival with enthusiasm. We spread out the books we’d brought on the floor and they raced from book to book, looking for the one that appealed the most to them.

We adults — myself, Ray, and several staff — did not have to cajole the kids to engage them in this form of childhood learning. We simply sat on the floor or in chairs as the kids clustered around us with their prized findings and ongoing pleas of “can you read this next?”

The joy in reading and being read to was palpable, appreciated, and welcomed.

Yet far too often as we grow older, the want to of it metamorphoses into have to. ironically, this seems to happen as reading becomes so easy, so entrenched that it becomes a taken-for-granted feature. Perversely, it also seems to happen during the course of school years, where reading gets drained of its inherent wonder and becomes just another task; a chore.

How do we fix that?

Or, maybe a better question, is why do we let it break?

Our Queer Language

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

Speak my language

This post is about the difficulty of defining sexual orientation.

But it is also about the struggle to create a decent (that is, successful) resume for a tough economy. Indeed, it is even more broadly about the challenge of adequately presenting identity at all.

The word “queer” seems to be in fashion in Vermont. I see it used by RUI2, Outright Vermont, and many of the people I have encountered, especially youth. Of late I’ve taken to using the word myself, identifying as “queer” rather than “gay”.

The word “queer” of course has a mixed history, being both a pejorative as well as, perhaps ironically, a word of pride. Sometimes its status as either appears to ebb and wane through the decades; at other times it appears to possess both characteristics simultaneously.

In effect, it is a queer word itself.

Yet it also seems to be the best word we currently have.

The LGBT community has a serious letter problem. Or I should say the LGBTQ, or maybe LGBTQAA, or is it LGBTQAAI or LGBTQ*? Indeed, those of us middle-aged remember it as GLBT, the L and G getting switched somewhere along the way.

The addition of each letter is supposed to make it more inclusive, but in a way it defeats itself, especially if we are not careful in our thinking. It reminds me of the debate about adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution of the United States, where it comprises the first ten amendments.

We have inalienable rights. The ninth amendment itself is very clear on just how broadly this should be interpreted:

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Yet we tend to gloss over its stunningly bold and arguably sweeping statement of the individual and focus instead on the comparatively weak checklist quality of the other nine. Focus to the point that we give those other nine entries in the Bill of Rights some kind of comprehensive status rather than viewing them more accurately as emphatic.

Likewise with LGBT (or GLBT). Its original intent may have been to be more like the ninth amendment in its scope. However, Each letter represents a category that, like the Bill of Rights (with the exception of the ninth), inevitably leaves something out; leaves someone out. So the “solution” has been to add more letters.

But each of those letters becomes yet another unintentionally narrow category – another checklist box – that may or may not quite accurately fit the person. In many ways I am such a person, though I’ve commonly used “gay” as the best fit.

I have had sex with women. Two, actually, which is still plural, but is less than the number of such encounters I have had with men. Still, less or not, that sexual history is part of me. It is also a part of me that I could “get it up” for a woman.

Yet, I do not consider myself bisexual according to my understanding of the word. For the “getting it up” I mentioned has less to do with attraction, arousal, or desire, and more to do with the mechanics of body, blood flow to penis, and the manly urge to ejaculate.

Sure, there was some attraction, arousal, and desire present in the opposite sex encounters, but it was situation-driven rather than because of orientation.

“Gay” seemed to be a closer fit, encompassing my spontaneous thoughts of such things. With a woman I have to deliberately think about whether or not she is attractive, whereas with a man such notions arise automatically and instantaneously.

So I’ve usually described myself as gay.

But for whom is that term necessary? Defining myself as gay does nothing to facilitate my own understanding of self and it does not change my history in the least. I am still who I am, who I was, and who I will be.

Instead the definition is for the benefit of the world at large; an attempt at conveying who I am to others who are not me.

Yet, whatever word I use is going to be colored by the experiences of the reader, who necessarily can only understand it as a category; a category that will not – can never — have quite the same hue as my own understanding of it.

Such is the problem of language in general. It is adequately functional at best and highly dysfunctional at worst. If I say think of “chair”, we are both thinking of the same thing and yet not of the same thing. For your thought of “chair” brings to that particular neuronal firing all of your previous chair thoughts, constructing it accordingly.

Typically such disparity is close enough for government work.

If I asked you to sit in a chair, I likely wouldn’t find you sitting on the floor due to an intractable misunderstanding of the term. On a day-to-day, we can make corrections, too, that alleviate some of that discrepancy by being more precise: “Hand me a screwdriver… no, I meant the Phillips screwdriver.”

Neither my coloring nor yours changes the reality of chair or screwdriver. Likewise our back and forth refinement of such terms only affects our alignment of language to one another and not the underlying object itself being thus referenced.

Resumes present a similar issue. I have certain work experiences I wish to convey. Did I collaborate with team members or did I communicate with them? Did I coordinate that program or manage it? Did I write content or create it?

All of those action words are true, yet they fall short of the elusive whole truth. The unchanged reality of what I have done – the chair and screwdriver of my work history – gets put into a category that limits it, sometimes to detrimental effect:

The employer might assume you can’t do work A because the terms they associate with doing work A are not present in your resume. I’ve been trying – quite unsuccessfully so far – to tweak my resume with each new application in such a way that I can generate a favorable response; one that, in my eyes, more accurately reflects the breadth and depth of my capabilities.

A resume, at its core, is an expression of identity; a work identity. A sexual orientation is another one. And of course there are innumerable others, all of which get continually tweaked during communication as we attempt to convey who we are in the best, most clearly understood, way possible.

Queer is much broader and inclusive than the paint-by-letters of LGBTQA-Z. For me, it encompasses the entire spectrum of gender attraction, identity, and expression. For I cannot think of anything more wonderfully strange and beautifully odd than the underlying diversity that is inherently present by us each being unique.

Of course, that might instill the comment that “straight” people should fall into that category as well, indeed making everyone queer.

Well, yeah, in a perfect world I think they should and think they would. For in a perfect world, everyone recognizes everyone else as being sovereign of their own selves; recognizes and respects that sovereignty.

For now, though, the world is queerly imperfect.

So when I write “queer” protagonists I am writing characters “outside the norm”; however, for them queer is the norm, as it is for me. We’re just waiting for the world to catch up.

Ninth Place

I ended up in ninth place at the Cabin Fever Spelling Bee on Saturday.

I know this because my husband diligently kept track. I must admit such knowledge made me feel pretty darn good about my performance. Maybe not as good as winning would have, but with my bar set on the floor at “please don’t let me be the first one out,” the losing felt like a win.

Still, I lost on a stupid word.


Well, to be fair, I reckon the word itself isn’t stupid. I love language far too much to slander any contribution to it, even rather bizarre new entries like twerk or old ones from my generation like tubular.

But still, from a thinking about thinking viewpoint, the misspelling possessed a couple of levels of most curious mental freezing.

The first was with the word itself. Although I occasionally get paid for writing, it’s not yet been the kind of paid that extinguishes the necessity of having to eke out a living by doing all sorts of non-writing things. One of my current such eke’s is stocking groceries, which includes handling a yogurt with the aforementioned fruit on the bottom.

I must have seen that word hundreds upon hundreds of times, yet I couldn’t spell it when called upon to do so.

The second was with what I actually did spell.

I spelled the last part g-r-a-n-i-t-e. Which may have been influenced by us now living in Vermont, but still…  even as I spelled it that way I knew it was wrong; I just couldn’t think of the right way. Yet, where did this feeling of wrong come from, if I ostensibly did not know the right way of spelling for such a comparison to be made?

A reasonable answer would be that it was not a case of merely not knowing, but more a case of not being able to bring that knowing up to the conscious level. It might seem here that the shorter sentence of I couldn’t recall would suffice and mean roughly the same thing as my more verbose sentence with all its nots.

But it doesn’t and doesn’t.

For recall makes it sound like the conscious part is the only part involved in thinking; like we reach into our bag of memories and mental whatnots, and once we do, once we make the retrieval, that is where thought happens.

But thinking is what our brain — our entire brain — does, 24/7. We are thinking whether or not we think we are thinking. Sometimes, though, all those thinking parts aren’t always the best at communicating with one another.

So the part that thought about granite, compared it to its no doubt knowledge of the correct spelling of pomegranate, and finally advised, nope, that’s not right, failed to take that extra step and provide the correct spelling to what we typically refer to as consciousness.

Although frustrating at times, subconscious thinking is one of the things that makes writing so fun for me. Even when I plan, I never know for sure what will come out; what the unconscious parts of me will think is important enough to nudge me in that creative direction.

For instance, when I started this blog entry, I thought I intended to write about the weirdness of how things are spelled and pronounced in English, hoping to have an excuse to use The Tough Coughs As He Ploughs the Dough by Dr. Seuss in such a discussion.

Or at least use the word gallimaufry, which is a neat word that I had never heard before and the person sitting next to me spelled correctly. She knew it as the title of a book on obscure words she had recently received. It means a confused jumble or medley of things.

But all’s well that thinks well and I included both anyway, appearances of gallimaufry notwithstanding.

The Cure, Concepts, and Functional Sameness

I turned to look at you
To read my thoughts upon your face
And gazed so deep into your eyes
So beautiful and strange
Until you spoke
And showed me understanding is a dream
“I hate these people staring
Make them go away from me!”
—- the Cure, How Beautiful You Are

I am (slowly) reading this wholly engaging and insightful book on thought by Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander called Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. In it, they argue that analogy is not only a primary component of what we call thinking, but it is essential; it is foundational to thought occurring at all.

I think they’re on to something and hope to write much on that something, but right now I want to focus on their deconstruction of concepts, which I think glosses over a crucial something that I further think is pretty much universally glossed over. It is not the kind of crucial that would destroy their overall thesis (like I said, I think they’re onto something). But it is the kind or crucial that keeps me up at night and frames, or at least adds to, my perspective on things.

We are so used to living our lives conceptually, that we take concepts for granted, not spending much time thinking about how there really is not anything spoken or written or thought that is not coming from our ongoing conceptual construction, which not only encompasses the obvious ones understood as concepts like dogs and cats and chairs, but also ones not so obvious like and and the and a.

Hofstadter and Sander systematically disabuse us of the notion that concepts are somehow out there like planets waiting to be discovered; rather, it is the opposite. They are slippery and somewhat arbitrary beasts coming from inside us, subject to change and very much to our collective whim.

One important way they show this is through comparing languages, focusing on what every translator knows well: there are major differences in how languages divide things conceptually, making one-to-one word translation often impossible. For example:

We know what time it is right now… how much time it will take to drive to the airport, and how many times we’ve done so before. These three ideas strike us as being… about just one concept: the concept known as “time”

In France, however, our conceptually monolithic time is regarded as involving three separate concepts, therefore requiring a distinct word to be used to convey the meaning of each particular situation clearly.

The authors give many other thought-provoking examples, but another one I found most fascinating was from Indonesia. Where we describe siblings in terms of sister and brother, meaning female sibling and male sibling respectively, Indonesians break out siblings in term of comparative age. So instead of brother and sister, they use kakak and adik, which mean “elder sibling” and “younger sibling”.

The overall point is that how things get broken up conceptually is not universal, and can differ significantly from culture to culture; collectively created out of what that society deems important, efficient, or just plain sensible.

However, the authors go on to say, for a large number of concepts there is good agreement across languages. This would be expected, as we are all human and do things like walk and talk and eat and sleep and so on.

But — and the but here is now me interjecting my own tangential thoughts into the matter — agreement is not the same as identical. We may, at times, be able to translate one word directly for another, and it may serve the function we intended, but I’m not convinced the ‘meaning’ content is the same. Indeed, I take this strand of thought further, wanting to contend that concepts break down differently at the individual level not just at the cultural one.

Oh, we have agreement, sure, and linguistic workarounds. And it is true enough that someone’s not going to say dog to me and I’m going to picture, say, a horse. But at the core level, at the necessarily individualized experiential level, I think the agreement is of functional sameness masquerading as an identically shared concept.

For even though we each employ the use of ostensibly mutually understood concepts in our dialogues with one another, we can’t help but fill in those thought containers with our personalized specifics and shade the understanding with our own life experiences. This might be one of the reasons why it is so difficult to find common ground; we can never absolutely know someone else’s ground let alone completely share it.

By our very nature, at the most basic biologically confining level, everyone already IS an island and never will be — never can be — anything else.

And this is why I hate you
And how I understand
That no-one ever knows or loves another

He’s My Husband Not My Couch

Language is an arbitrary system of articulated sounds made use of by a group of humans as a means of carrying on the affairs of their society (Francis 1958:13) [my emphasis]

I think that’s close to the definition my mom shared with me over three decades ago as we discussed reading, writing, and the power of both. I was in elementary school then and am relying on memory now, but the impression it made on me has kept 80% of her exact wording intact despite no active effort on my part to remember it.

We are so used to using words, we sometimes forget that words in and of themselves have no inherent meaning. One doesn’t go digging out in the desert and uncover the word “Dog”, or even “Sand” for that matter. Rather we develop a system where we can make an utterance that another fellow user of that system will understand we are talking about dog and sand if that is what we are needing to convey to them.

Persons who oppose marriage equality often accuse me of redefining marriage. But that’s misunderstanding how language works. Definitions, like cultures, are never static. They come out of society’s need to communicate certain ideas, not the other way around.

This need is society dependent. As such, between any two societies there can be whole swaths of words that are utterly absent from one or the other, or are at the least quite cumbersome to translate if they can be translated at all.

For purposes of this blog entry, the Yanomamo tribe of Indians comes to mind. Familial relationships are important to them in carrying out their affairs. So where we use the generic word Aunt and Uncle to describe a sibling of either our mother or our father, they have a separate word for each, instantly letting the listener know with a high degree of specificity what the person’s exact relationship is to them.

Likewise, when I am allowed to use the word husband to describe Gary — which I am prevented from doing so in the course of filling out any number of heterosexist forms, such as taxes — any listener or reader in my culture instantly knows where he fits into my life.

They know we are not shacked up. They know I’m not referencing a business partner. They don’t think he is just one of many others in my life who are significant. Nor do they think I am referring to a fellow member of a union that requires dues.

And they sure as heck don’t think I’m talking about the davenport in my living room, the Internet, or cell phones.

Only someone being deliberately ignorant would claim to be confused by my use of husband. Only the slyly disingenuous would say they do not know what I am meaning when I say, He is my husband. Only those who are being maliciously incendiary would assert that I’m using the term husband in some wholly foreign way comparable to using it to refer to a tree or a rock or a box turtle.

For we as a society have a common bond of shared language that allows this effective, and wholly unambiguous, piece of straightforward — and honest — communication:

I am married.

I have a husband.

His name is Gary.

Three simple sentences that you don’t have to be smarter than a fifth grader to understand. Nor do you need a dictionary for comprehension.