Category : words

Boston, the Hub of the Universe

Or so we were taught!

There’s a new movie out, Chappaquiddick. I don’t plan to see it, mostly because I prefer to hang on to whatever I think I know of the Kennedys. Reviews have called it out on historical facts, and also on the accents that are supposed to represent Boston.

So, it’s time to drag out my BostonSpeak piece.

I claimed Boston as my home for the first decades of my life. I was born in a suburb less than 8 miles away, went to college on the Fenway. Yes, THE Fenway—in certain classrooms on campus you could hear the crack of the bat. I also taught at that same college for many years. Is that enough Boston cred for you?

Besides hosting more than 53 institutions of higher learning, including MIT and Harvard, Boston has its own accent. Travel even 20 miles from Boston, and the accent is gone, indistinguishable from that of the network anchor in Grinnell, Iowa.

Everyone recognizes the accent; not everyone can imitate it. Even after many years in California, I can go back to it whenever I choose. Or, whenever I talk to my relatives and friends who still live there, says my husband.

“Hi, they-ah,” they say.

“Howahya?” I ask.

Even though I now speak like Californians, careful with my r’s, I’m very protective of Boston-speak.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when actors/actresses who are not natives try to take on the accent. It doesn’t work. Nothing can spoil a movie for me like a pretend Boston accent, which makes the actor sound like he’s rolling a hot potato around in his mouth. An old but good example is Rob Morrow in “Quiz Show.” In an attempt to sound out the broad a’s, his lips never met. Similarly, in “The Verdict,” set in Boston, no one got it right. Thank you, Paul Newman, for not trying. In newer movies, actors and their directors know enough not to try. They leave it to natives like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

JFK himself is often ridiculed for his accent. People laugh at his “Cuba(r) and Laos.” But Kennedy, and every other Bostonian, would pronounce Cuba as Cuba, unless the word is followed by another word that begins with a vowel. Thus:

“I went to Laos and Cuba,” but “I went to Cuba(r) and Laos.”

Similarly, a Bostonian would say “I obey the law,” but “I’m studying the law(r) of gravity.”

This is a common practice in many languages, where the letter used for the elision is actually written, as in Italian with e and ed, the words for and, depending on the first letter of the next word.

Back in the days of landlines, I called the San Jose Airport, seeking information (pre-Internet) about the layout of the airport before I drove there for a flight.

“Can you tell me where to park my car?” I asked.  ["Pahk my cah."]

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said. “We have no flights to Pakaka.”

At that moment I decided to learn to speak like a TV anchorwoman. Now, I do. Well, most of the time.

Hand me my lappet, please

It’s one of those weeks when I have to search for something to celebrate. April Fool has passed, and it’s 2 weeks till we can honor Paul Revere.

April 3 was Alec Baldwin’s birthday, but he’s getting enough attention lately. (Congratulations on that Emmy, Alec!) April 5, 1908 is Bette Davis’s birthday, but who remembers her?

It’s also National Caramel Day and National Dandelion Day. Ho hum.

Never mind those. Instead, I thought I’d learn a new word. I started with my favorite research spot: the public domain collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here it is, image and all: a lappet.

French, early 19th century

Dictionary definition:

Lappet: a small flap or fold, in particular.
  • a fold or hanging piece of flesh in some animals.
    noun: lappet; plural noun: lappets
  • a loose or overlapping part of a garment.

Clearly I’m going for the garment app.

Can you use lappet in a sentence? (Yes, this is 5th grade.)

Dog Days of Summer

A post repurposed from LadyKillers, BUT more appropriate here since the Dog Days period ends today August 11.

Apparently this phrase dates back to the ancient Greeks (doesn’t everything?) and has to do with a constellation that looks like a dog (Canis Major) chasing one that looks like a rabbit (Lepus).

The star Sirius (14th c.), the brightest in the constellation, is at the dog’s nose. The meaning of the phrase has morphed into a characterization of the period of Sirius’s rising, from July 3 to August 11, a period marked by lethargy, inactivity, or indolence.

Never mind that in (roughly) 13,000 years, the dog star Sirius will be rising with the sun in mid-winter.

Some imagination those ancients had. It took an entire semester-long course in college for me just to match the names, the gods, and the myths.

What interests me is how, and how come, so many of the names have survived. For example, the multi-channel radio in my car is by Sirius. It seems incongruous that I’m listening to Willie’s Roadhouse on a service with a name that dates back at least 7 centuries and means scorching.


The Nova laser, one generation after Shiva, from the Latin, meaning new.

One of the world’s most powerful lasers of the 20th century was named Shiva, the name of a Hindu god, the Destroyer. Apt, I suppose, since Shiva the laser decimated any target it was aimed at.

But wouldn’t you think there’d be a more modern hi-tech name, indicative of the high-level technology that brought Shiva into existence?

Maybe this is why LASER is one of my favorite words, the acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. There are no gods associated with it; no wars, no constellations, no etymology traceable to the ancients. While not the first acronym, the word itself has no other origin.

So, maybe the Dog Days of Summer can be called Dodaysum, and in 1000 years or so, someone will think she was a 21st century goddess who lay around all day.

And now, speaking of new words: I think I’ll make my Blexit.    <groan> Come on, admit it if you get this!


Continuing the spirit of back to school, I was eager to learn a new word. Here’s one.

Acersecomic (noun): a person whose hair has never been cut. For example, my 3-year-old grandniece is an acersecomic. I can hardly wait to teach her how to write it.

Act of rejection of acersecomic-ness

Granted, the word hasn’t appeared since some time in the 17th century, but I’d hate to see a good word go to waste.

If you care about its etymology: The word is from the Latin acersecomes, a long-haired youth, a word borrowed from an earlier Greek word made up of keirein, to cut short; kome, the hair of the head; and the prefix a-, meaning not.

What’s your odd word of the day?

Para what?

It’s the age of para.

Paramedics, paralegals, paraprofessionals, parapsychology, and everyone’s current favorite paranormal.

Formerly used to indicate side by side, its newer meaning is closer to an ancillary status, or almost, as in paralegal.

Another meaning of para is “guarding against,” as in a parasol, which guards against the sun, and a parachute, which guards against free fall.

My latest run-in with para is with the word paraprosdokian.

Def.: A paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence or phrase is surprising or unexpected in a way that causes the reader or listener to reinterpret the first part. It’s frequently used for humorous or dramatic effect. For this reason, it’s extremely popular among comedians and satirists.

Some examples:

• War does not determine who is right, only who is left.

• Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

• A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. What’s a work station?

• Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

• Always borrow money from a pessimist. He won’t expect it back.

And my favorite:

• To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.

Do you have any paras to add?

C Me? I C U

In the third grade, I won a spelling bee. My prize was a shiny new green pencil and a pristine pink eraser, wrapped together with an oft-used rubber band (we called them “elastics”).

I have no recollection of the words I spelled, but I checked what today’s third graders are spelling. Some examples:






There was no way Mrs. Johnson could have known how much the spelling of these words would change in a few decades. I feel like turning back my pencil and eraser.

In the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin proposed a new, phonetic alphabet (what didn’t the man take an interest in?) His alphabet consisted of all the letters we’re familiar with, except there was no c, j, q, w, x, or y, on the grounds that they were redundant; and there were six additional letters, such as th, to provide for sounds that needed representation.

There wasn’t much interest in his proposal, even though he had the means to commission a foundry to prepare type for the new letters.

I wonder what he or Mrs. Johnson would think of “spelling” in today’s world of texters? I don’t recall a formal proposal or RFPs for new type foundries, but there’s no question that we have a more phonetic approach to spelling, much as he’d recommended:

enough –> nuf

thought –> thot

difference –> diff

easy –> EZ

photograph –> foto, or pic

Will improved technology (better ergonomics for finger/keyboard interaction, e.g.) take us back to enough, thought, difference . . . ?

It’s not so simple. Here are some examples from a list of 1400 abbreviations I found for texting and chatting on line.

TMI means  too much information

411 means information

POS means parent over shoulder

And more Netlingo:

**// means wink, wink, nudge

*$ means Starbucks

Even if you use only the most common acronyms (LOL, BFF, ROFL), I’ll bet you don’t write

I won’t be late; I’ll see you soon, but rather Not L8; CU soon.

Or some variation.

It seems to me that technology is driving this “evolution” of language, starting with spelling and grammar. Has it always been that way – technology as the tool of change?

Do you text? How’s your spelling?

Is anything the same as it was in third grade?