Monday, May 23, 2016


When you do a lot of yoga, you hear a lot of anatomical terminology, some of which is scientific and some of which is far from it. For example, yoga instructors like to refer to your "sit bones," which I had never heard of before my first yoga class. A scientist would call these bones the ischial tuberosities, but I guess we can't all be scientists. If you want to use common language for an anatomical part, that doesn't bother me any.

What does bother me is when you use the wrong anatomical term for an anatomical part--the most frequent culprit being vertebrae. 

The vertebrae, collectively, are the bones that form the spinal column. Because the term comes from Latin, and latin plurals are wack, it should surprise no one to find out that vertebrae is a plural form of the word vertebra. Therefore, each individual bone in the spine is called a "vertebra."

So every time a yoga teacher tells you to rise from your forward fold "one vertebrae at a time," an ancient Roman grammarian rolls over in his grave. Probably most modern medical professionals would do so too, if they were not still alive.

So my advice to all those who, in their line of work, need to refer to the bones of the spinal column, is to either stop that and say something sensible like, "Rise to standing starting with your head and working your way down your back," or else get your Latin plurals straight. It's "one vertebra at a time!"

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to pronounce caramel

An anonymous commenter on my last language post made the insinuation that I incorrectly pronounce the word "caramel." An interesting allegation, since one of my friends constantly criticizes my pronunciation of that same word. Surely the commenter could not have been my friend! Surely a friend would own up to their identity when making such an outré claim! Right?

Regardless of who dropped the controversial comment, I think it's time to set the record straight. What is the right way to pronounce "caramel"?

Before I delve into the reference material, let us consider the two sides of this argument, which basically boils down to the pronunciation of the first A. Is it the A of a sigh of relief, such as in most of the Romance languages, the A of words like "car" and "far," (and represented by "a" in the International Phonetic Alphabet, which will come in handy as you read the rest of this post)—the way I've always pronounced it? Or is it the particularly English A of words like "ass" and "bad," (represented by æ in the IPA)—as my friend insists is the only right way?

To get a balanced perspective on the issue, I consulted one of my favorite reference tools:, which searches over a thousand dictionaries when you ask it for a definition.

When I perused several dictionary entries returned by my search for caramel, I found that every dictionary listed several alternative pronunciations. So one thing became immediately clear: there is no single "correct" pronunciation.

However, let's assume that any person who feels so strongly about the superiority of their pronunciation will, much like any fanatic in any other arena, rabidly attempt to create a conflict where there is none. So let's explore the issue further. 

Although all dictionaries surveyed allowed multiple varying pronunciations of the word caramel, every dictionary, by default, has a preferred pronunciation—whichever one is listed first. So I surveyed the results of my OneLook search to ascertain which pronunciation was more commonly preferred in the dictionaries.

After weeding out duplicate entries, links which went nowhere, and entries with no pronunciation listed, I found 13 entries. If the dictionary included a sound clip of the pronunciation, I used the first listed sound clip as their default; otherwise I chose the first phonetic pronunciation listed. The Oxford, Collins, Macmillan, Wikitionary, Wordsmyth, and references ruled in favor of the "æ" sound; while the American Heritage,, Merriam-Webster's, YourDictionary, Infoplease, and Free Dictionary entries leaned toward the "a" sound. The Cambridge Dictionary stated that the "æ" version is a British pronunciation while the "a" one is American, but since the debate over whether American or British English is "better" is an anthill best left undisturbed, I'm leaving those results out of my survey. That leaves us with a six-to-six tie.

If that's not enough to unambiguously conclude that neither pronunciation is any more correct than the other, then I'll be a dirty bird...but, as it happens, I do have one other test that we might use to determine a clear winner. Let's consider the origin of the word!

Words and their pronunciations are constantly developing and changing, but whenever there is a conflict regarding how to pronounce one, I would defer to the earliest origin. For that, I refer to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which states that the word caramel is derived directly from the identical word in French. In French "caramel" is pronounced with a decidedly æ-like first vowel, which would seem to give the win to that pronunciation. However, the French word caramel came from the Spanish word caramel, which would be pronounced with the Spanish "a" sound, lending some heft to my side of the argument. But wait! Looking further, we see that the Spanish caramel derives from the Medieval Latin "cannamellis." At this point, I'm out of my league, not knowing the first thing about Medieval Latin pronunciations or where to look them up, and in fact, no one can know for sure how a language was pronounced in the distant past, so I think it's high time to give up this chase!

Considering the overwhelming number of resources that claim my pronunciation is quite acceptable, I'm going to go right on calling a caramel a caramel (and pronouncing it the way I always have). Anyone who wants to tell me I'm wrong will have to produce a native speaker of Medieval Latin!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

They hear we got swag

I work on a college campus and I go to a lot of conferences, so getting free stuff is a regular part of my life.

I am not sure how free gifts with corporate logos on them became known as "swag," but I do know that I've received quite a lot of them over the years, and I consider myself quite the authority on what makes them good or not. I'm here to share my opinions on some of the promotional gifts I've received over the years. I intended to include photographs with this post, since a picture is worth a thousand cheap pens, but since I am in Hawaii and have neither my collection of conference goodies with me nor a speedy internet connection, you will just have to settle for this large amount of text.

My least favorite conference swag includes stickers and temporary tattoos. These items are a cheap and easy way to promote your company, except no one wants them. I struggle to find places to stick my stickers. Usually I feel that they make any surface uglier, though I tend to use them to decorate the covers of my work-related notebooks. Temporary tattoos, though, are almost a complete waste. No one wants to walk around with someone else's logo affixed to their skin. The day I wear a corporate temporary tattoo is the day someone pays me to do so.

Pens are also a total let-down as far as free gifts go. When I used to work in retail, pens were always disappearing, and I would have been glad for a free conference pen or a dozen...but now that I work at a job where I actually get free pens on the regular, well, I've been using the same 2 pens since I started 4.5 years ago.

T-shirts are one of those gifts that you get really excited about until you actually own them...and then they sit in your closet taking up space for months while you reject them in favor of clothes that actually fit and are fun to wear. Finally you donate them, unused, hoping some poverty-stricken recipient will just be glad to have a shirt at all.

Somewhere in the middle ground are things like sunglasses. They were a cool novelty when I first started getting them for free, but now they are ubiquitous, and my Cheap Sunglasses collection is getting a little unmanageable! At least, though, when you go to a conference, you can usually count on getting some free eye protection if you ever need to step outside into the glaring light of day.

Gifts that I usually find useful are quality reusable water bottles. I'm not talking the cheap squeezable bottles with sport tops that always seem to leak, but good, durable bottles that go the extra mile. Somehow my water bottles are always going MIA, so it's nice to have a constant stream of replacements. My current favorite is a lightweight clear plastic, reasonably sized bottle with a wide opening and leak-proof screw-off lid. Steel bottles are another favorite, though they are not often dishwasher-safe.

Once upon a time, my life was so devoid of lip balm that when my lips got dry, I would put hand lotion on them (rather than buying a tube of balm, naturally!) Nowadays, I have so many promotional lip balms, I keep one in my purse, and one at my desk at work, and another next to the bed at home, and I still feel I will never run out! However, despite my excessive supply, lip balms are one of those conference gifts that I continue to appreciate. I think businesses could be on the right track if they just expanded their reach with other types of small personal care items that people constantly need to replace—things like sunscreen tubes, nail clippers and files, dental floss and toothbrushes. I'd add shampoo and lotion to this list as well, but people who go to a lot of conferences probably also go to a lot of hotels, which means a free neverending supply of those items!

Currently topping my list are the large spring-action clips. These usually have magnets on the back, so they are probably intended to hold reams of paper to your refrigerator or antiquated steel filing cabinets, but for me, they make perfect food-storage clips. Although I have a sizeable collection already, one can always use another clip to hold a bag shut! 

The winner for the best corporate swag ever is one that I haven't found yet: pocket knives! Perhaps we don't see these because they could be deemed dangerous, but a little one-inch pocket knife isn't going to kill anyone, and they're about as handy as tools come. You can get these for like a dollar (I know because I'm constantly having to replace the ones I lose or abandon at airport security!), and if you stuck a logo on one and gave it to me for free, I can guarantee it would rarely be out of my sight.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Why I hate to travel

If you haven't noticed yet, my boyfriend and I travel a lot. Probably 3 times a year, we're jetting to some far-off locale for a week or a weekend. The most common question I receive when small-talking with one of his friends is "So where are you heading next?" followed by "Are you excited?" Which always leads to an awkward spot in the conversation, because the only honest answer I can give is "No."

I hate traveling.

Don't get me wrong. I like adventuring. I enjoy exploring. I love seeing new places and sights. And I'm happy for every break from work and responsibilities I can arrange. But I hate the actual process of traveling. And since I can tell (from the puzzled expressions I get whenever I tell people how little I want to go on my next vacation) that no one understands, I am going to attempt to explain why.

I hate living out of a suitcase, not having all my stuff at my fingertips. At home, no matter what horrible thing may happen to me, I'm prepared. On a trip, no matter how much you prepare, something inevitably happens that you're not ready for. Every tiny forgotten supply causes a major ordeal, and usually the resolution is to purchase an expensive replacement that you'll never use again because you already have 3 backups at home. 

If that's not enough, I'm sure you can understand why living out of a suitcase is especially painful for someone who loves her extensive wardrobe as much as I do. Not only do I have to limit my packing in quantity, but I also have to limit it in practicality. Everything must be wrinkle-resistant, must be layerable in case of unexpected weather, must be comfortable for long walks and long trips in a vehicle, must frequently be conservative and plain so as not to mark me as a stranger in a strange land, and, if space is especially tight, must match everything else in the suitcase so I can re-wear them in different combinations. With all these restrictions, there are only a poor few garments that pass muster for travel, and consequently, I have to wear the same old things every time I go on a trip.

I also despise flying. I would hands-down prefer to drive 16 hours to get to my destination than spend 2 hours on an airplane, but sometimes, you are forced to fly. When I fly, I have to agonize over what to pack in my carry-on, beat up my conscience over the amount of fossil fuels I'm wasting, spend hours sitting in a germ-infested airplane cabin trying to avoid disturbing my seatmates, die of boredom going through security, die of boredom waiting for the flight, die of boredom waiting for layovers, and spend the first hour of every flight in a state of abject terror (seriously, the more I fly, the more I am convinced I'm going to die in a fiery crash).

I hate being the foreigner. Traveling within the U.S. is not so bad, but whenever I'm in another country, I know I stick out like a sore thumb. I'm looked down on for being American and preyed on for supposedly having money. I hate speaking another language badly, and I feel like a lazy snob when I default to English. Even something as simple as having to ask for directions to a landmark, or where I can find a supermarket, is terrifying. For someone with crippling anxiety even in relatively familiar social situations, being in a different country is enough to send me back home with a case of hypertension.

Traveling always makes me sick. Being around a slew of new people harboring a slew of new viruses is a sure recipe for infection. Almost every time I go somewhere new, I come back home with the worst kind of souvenir: a cold.

This Friday, we're off to New Orleans for a week, followed by a Saturday's rest, then I'm heading to Richmond for my brother's Monday wedding, then on Wednesday it's back into the air for a week-long trip to Hawaii for another wedding. If that's not too much travel for a travelphobe, I don't know what is! You could wish me a bon voyage, but I think it would be more appropriate to send me your condolences.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Li'l Language Lady again admits to being wrong.

Recently I boasted about the list of words that I, unlike the author of the article that inspired me, have always pronounced correctly. Not to make you think I'm some kind of linguistic egomaniac, I am now here to list some words that I have had the wrong idea about.

Quite a long while ago (long enough that I should have forgotten, but I didn't, because it was embarrassing!), I claimed quite adamantly that "informatory" was not a real word. After all, we already have "informative" and "informational"—why would we need yet another variation of the same adjective? But sure enough, according to Webster, "informatory" is legit. This reminds me of the time that I smugly (and wrongly) believed that "problematical" was a made-up word.

Now onto a topic that is only related in the sense that it's also a word I had no idea of the meaning of—crudités. I knew it's a food, because I read it in stories where fancy people are serving finger food. It sounds like a food that would be fried, or at least crispy, but not very tasty really, just a bland cracker-like thing. Turns out it's really raw vegetables. Bonus! It's always spelled in the plural, even when used with a singular verb! I only learned that last year.
And lastly, here is a word close to my heart. It has become so familiar to me that I hardly believe I was once so wrong about it's nature, but indeed I was—Serif. 
This word is used extensively throughout the design (and web development world) but I had been confused about it for a long time before I was finally set straight. While I was aware of which fonts were serif fonts (those like Times New Roman, for example, with the little crossbars at the tops and bottoms of vertical lines) and which were sans serif (those like Arial, without such ornamentation), I could not wrap my head around their names. Why would serif fonts — the ones that were all fancy and covered with extra fiddly bits – have such a simple name, while the simple ones have the longer, more complicated name? Finally, all was made clear to me: serif is the word for the extra fiddly bits, and "sans serif" means "without serif(s)." At this point in my life, I had yet to figure out that "sans" is the French word for "without." I don't remember when I learned this valuable tidbit, but I do remember that it was quite a revelation to me, since I'd been so confused for so long. And it doesn't stop there. At the same time that I learned the proper meaning of serif, I also learned I had been pronouncing it wrong in my head (fortunately I'd never had cause to pronounce it out loud) as "sir-EEF" when it's actually pronounced "SARE-if."
So there you have it. We all make mistakes, but when I learn I have made one, I'm probably going to share it on my blog so no one else can make the same one!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bosty Tea Party Cookies

You didn't think that, when I went to Boston, I would content myself with cookies from just one establishment, did you? Oh, no! I found giant cookies at the café at the Boston Tea Party site, so naturally I had to give them a try!

Peanut Butter Cookie 

It was love at first sight when I laid eyes on this gem of a cookie. Just look at those huge chunks of Reese's cup strewn all over the top! Fortunately, the taste lived up to the hype, and I had a pleasant time eating this bit of candy-coated eye candy.

The texture was wonderfully soft and chewy, with the perfect amount of crispiness just around the edges!

Peanut butter cookies do tend to run on the cloyingly sweet side, and this one did as well, so I knock off one minor point for flavor.

And of course, the price, as with any truly wonderful product, was far from a bargain at 3.50$ a cookie or 2.92¢ per gram.

The Bottom Line

Taste: 4 out of 5 stars
Texture: 5 out of 5 stars
Price: 1 out of 5 stars

Chocolate Chip Cookie

Unlike the peanut butter cookie, this classic confection didn't blow you away with sweetness at first bite. Its taste was more subtle, bordering on dull even, as it tasted just about like any other chocolate chip cookie I've ever eaten.

It was a nice touch to include two different kinds of chocolate pieces (chunks and mini cups) for my intellectual pleasure, even if they all tasted the same.

As far as the texture, it was chewy in the middle like the peanut butter cookie, but the edges, rather than going crispy, just got even more chewy, to the point that they were almost too tough. This didn't combine well with the chocolate, which despite being recently removed from a refrigerator, were still too soft and almost melty.

On the whole, this was a perfectly acceptable chocolate chip cookie, even though it didn't quite blow my mind.

The Bottom Line

Taste: 3 out of 5 stars
Texture: 3 out of 5 stars
Price: 1 out of 5 stars

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cookie Monstah Cookies

I did not know this until I traveled to Boston a weekend ago, but people from Boston supposedly have an accent. I hardly heard anybody actually speak in this accent, but all the souvenirs were emblazoned with words that were spelled in ways that I suppose represent the accent. Apparently in Boston, the word monster would be pronounced "Monstah." Hence the name of the "Cookie Monstah" food truck that I ran across just outside of Boston Common.

I bought two cookies and carried them around with me very carefully in my purse all day, finally eating them a few days later at the office.

Sugar Cookie 

Oops, I forgot to photograph it before I started eating it!
On the simple side of things, I purchased a sugar cookie for 2$ and ate it a few days later at work. You would think, with my "more is more" mentality, I would find sugar cookies boring, but I actually usually enjoy them for their rich buttery flavor. This sugar cookie was no exception—it tasted delightful!

Despite crumbling a bit more than I prefer, it also possessed a decent texture that was chewy in the middle and a bit thin and crisper on the edges. The sugar crystals on top gave it that extra crunch  that I love, which means the rest of the cookie could have afforded to be a little less crunchy and a little more chewy, but I guess that's splitting hairs.

The worst thing about this cookie was the price. Barely qualifying as giant at only 75g, it was quite a costly purchase,  2.67¢/gram. I probably wouldn't buy it again unless I were desperate.

The Bottom Line

Taste: 5 out of 5 stars
Texture: 4 out of 5 stars
Price: 1 out of 5 stars

Stuffed Oreo cookie

Now here's a novel concept—a chocolate chip cookie with an Oreo cookie inside. I was sold on the idea alone, but sadly the actual experience was less of a treat than I had been expecting.
The chocolate chip portion of the cookie was too dry and crumbly, and the taste wasn't anything to write home about. It was strangely salty, and while I like salt in my sweets, this was too much even for me.

Costing 3$ but having slightly more mass than the sugar cookie, the stuffed Oreo cookie was a marginally better deal at 2.61¢/g. But marginal doesn't cut it, and this cookie was definitely not worth the price!

The Bottom Line

Taste: 2 out of 5 stars
Texture: 2 out of 5 stars
Price: 1 out of 5 stars