Monday, 14 March 2022

The Smartphone

 The Smartphone

When and why and what I need to know,

And how to get to where I want to go

And who is dating whom, the so-and-so,

Just ask the bloody phone, go with the flow.

I have come to realize that the smartphone is a curse. 

It is so convenient and informative. It tells me the time and the weather and my whereabouts and what everybody else is doing.

But it’s a sordid boon. I am addicted to it. As a child I read for hours on end, uninterrupted. Now, when I read a book, I pause every few pages to turn on my phone and read the news, or even, I’m embarrassed to admit, my Facebook page. Chess, Wordle, crosswords, texts, and the mundane things that other people do: it’s all on the phone. And much worse.

The picture of our age - a score of people standing on a platform waiting for a train, all looking down at their phones - is no exaggeration. When I first saw it, I laughed in derision, but now I am one of them.

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

The Winnipeg Wind Chill Factor Omission (or Making a Virtue out of Necessity)


We are experiencing a cold spell here in Victoria. Recently, I read that the temperature was going down to minus 20. It wasn’t, of course. It was going down to something like minus 8, but with a strong wind…. Oh no, I thought. The Winnipeg Wind Chill Factor Omission has reached the west coast.

When I arrived in Winnipeg in 1970, degrees Fahrenheit were being replaced by degrees Celsius. One New Year’s Eve the temperature went down to minus 41. Fahrenheit or Celsius, I forget which, but it didn’t matter, for they crossed over at minus 40. Forty below was minus 40. Along with the temperature came the wind chill factor, as a warning, for you would be frost-bitten much sooner in the wind. The temperature is minus 40, we were told — minus 45 with the wind chill factor. 

And then, for some reason, perhaps in the late seventies or eighties, the wind chill was no longer expressed as a temperature, but a four digit number, something to do with joules. Nobody knew what it meant, but 2,000 and above was bad. It was serious brass-monkey weather. 

There was a certain logic in expressing the wind chill as an independent number rather than a temperature. It may be minus 45 outside with the wind chill factor, but who is standing in the wind? And how much wind? In reality, the temperature with the wind chill factor varies for every individual, depending on the exposure. So it made sense to do away with “minus 45 with the wind chill factor”.

But because nobody knew what the four-digit number meant, and because Winnipeggers liked to brag about how cold it was, and the lower the temperature the better, the old system of measuring the wind chill factor returned. Once again, people would say, “It’s bloody cold: minus 25, minus 40 with the wind chill factor."

And then something happened.

Minus 25, minus 40 with the wind chill factor

evolved into 

Minus 25. Minus 40 (pause) with the wind chill factor

and then simply, 

Minus 40.

Suddenly, the temperature was lower than ever!

I suppose if you live in the coldest place on earth, you have to make a virtue out of necessity. You have to enjoy it. Instead of somehow easing the pain by saying, “It’s a dry cold”, you can embrace it, and say to other Canadians, 

It’s minus 40 here in Winnipeg!

You may have travelled from your garage in your heated car to heated underground parking, without venturing outside at all, and you certainly didn’t experience the wind chill, and the temperature isn’t really minus 40, but no matter,

It’s minus 40 here in Winnipeg!

Table of Contents

Monday, 20 December 2021

Like or As

 COVID-19 is not ever likely to be eradicated from the planet. It will become something that we can quite easily live with, like we do any number of other diseases. In the meantime, I am going to continue to live my life just as I was before I knew anything about Omicron.

In a recent column in the Globe and Mail, Gary Mason illustrates the language in transition. First, he uses “like” instead of “as” in front of the clause “we do”, but then he seems to have remembered what he learned at school, that “like” is a preposition to be followed only by a noun, while  the conjunction “as” should introduce a clause (“just as I was”).

We see this construction almost daily in the Globe. Just this morning for example, 

If maple spirit stops flowing like it did in the springs of my youth, what will Canada become?

I winced, just as I winced fifty years ago when sports celebrities with less education than I (but twenty times the income) would say in every interview, “Like I said...” Now, the error is everywhere, and I suspect the style guides are saying it is acceptable. But it still grates on my ear.

Like other grammarians, I will continue to use “as” in front of a clause, as I did in the past, and “like” in front of a noun.

“Like I said” — how the words grate on my ears,

Like stone on the glass or like chalk on the board,

And I will use “as” in my declining years,

As I learned at school, as the text book implored.

But when I am gone, and "like I said" becomes the idiom,

It will be deemed correct by the grammatical praesidium.

Table of Contents

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

Singular “They” Again

I may have solved the “singular they” problem. The problem is that in English we don’t have a singular, non-gendered pronoun. We have “he” or “she”, but no pronoun for the person whose sex we don’t know, or for the person who doesn’t want to identify as either male or female. We have the neutral pronoun "it", but that will not do.

This was a problem even before the non-binary age. Old grammatical farts like me would say “he or she”, but that would become very clumsy. Now that some people do not wish to be referred to as “he” or “she”,  the problem is even greater. Here is a version of a news item that I saw this morning. I have changed the details.

Winston is missing. They were last seen driving up the Pat Bay Highway in a Ford truck.

Of course, at first I wondered, who was with him? Then I suspected that Winston didn’t identify as either male or female, or the reporter was afraid of using the wrong singular pronoun and committing an act of micro-aggression.

In 2014, the Vancouver School Board attempted to introduce the neutral pronouns “xe”, "xem" and "xyr”. Bizarre as these pronouns would have sounded, at least it would have been clear how many persons were involved. But as far as I know, the pronouns haven't caught on.

So singular “they”, and “them”, may be here to say. Here is my solution, and I'm probably not the first to suggest it. To avoid confusion, if we know that a person does not wish to be referred to as “he” or “she”, then let’s make the verb singular as well.

Winston is missing. They was last seen driving up the Pat Bay Highway in a Ford Truck.

Then we'll know that he was alone.

For more on "singular they", microagression, and the Woke, see the Table of Contents.

Friday, 3 December 2021

Olefacto Ergo Sum

What is going through that little head of yours?

You meander in quick time along the way

Drawing me hither and thither, following 

The scent along the pavement. A rabbit, deer, 

Raccoon, or some other creature of the night? 

You relieve yourself, lingeringly, 

In lady’s fashion, upon a neighbour’s lawn, 

But then, a quick impulse, a sudden tug, 

Towards a bush: peemail, some people call it. 

Weighty correspondence indeed! You sniff, 

You sniff at length. Who has gone before?

Old Shep, with rhythmic bark and lurching gait

Or the wily whippersnapper down the street?

But then, you cock your leg and pee 

Again, not ladylike this time, but with purpose

And with masculine insouciance, 

As if to say, “I was here, remember me.”

Hermaphroditic being, what pronoun should I use? 

You pause and sniff again, and then, trot off. 

Veni, olefactavi, minxi.

Those of you with dogs will appreciate how much the daily round is determined by your canine companion. A look, a sudden descent from the couch,  a gentle nudge with a paw or an insistent scratch, a whine or even a bark — it’s time to go out. Or early in the morning, a scratch, a refusal to jump on the bed and go back to sleep, a fiercer scratch until there is no choice.

The poo-turnaround. Half-dressed, sometimes in shoes without socks, I

I stagger out and up the street, usually tugged in a straight line to the neighbour’s lawn for a pee, her, not me, no nonsense, no indecision, no darting back and forth, just a quick squat and a long pee. I count the seconds: seven, this morning, but once after an early night and a late start, it was thirteen. And then it’s up and off again with satisfaction, boisterous, jovial even, sometimes even with a little prance of happiness. Not me. I just want to return to bed, or coffee.

Halfway up the street, she (I wish we had the French word) obliques on to the boulevard grass and moves with purpose. Six quick steps in one direction, and then back again, a sniff, no, not quite right, three further steps, then yes, at last, she crouches — and issues forth, a turd.

An anxious moment, do I have a poo bag? If not,the dog owner’s dilemma. What to do? Is anybody watching? A deft kick with the side of my boot, or if my conscience gets the better of me, a delicate manoeuvre with a used tissue or a Covid mask.

But all is well. I pull out a green bag, retrieved yesterday from the Government House dispenser, the very best of poo bags, vice-regal quality, and bend down, hoping for the best.

This is an anxious moment too. Quality, consistency, ductility, malleability, solidity. Position: sometimes the turd is wedged between the blades of grass, impossible to retrieve intact. (One of the joys of walking your dog in the prairie winter is embracing the turd in a handful of snow.)

But this morning, all is well. As I pick it up, firm, she scratches, scattering the sod with atavistic vigour upon the earth beneath, and me as well, if I don’t dodge out of the way.

We turn around. She understands. Not a longer walk so early in the morning. And so, back to bed. Or coffee. 

For more articles, see Table of Contents.

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Canadian Spelling

As Winston Smith said with unconscious irony, the best books are those that tell you what you know already, and the same goes for opinion pieces in the Globe and Mail, such as this one by Galadriel Watson, “At the ‘center’ of a controversy: a defence of Canadian spelling”.

Like her, I’ve inwardly railed at “Health Center”and similar signs. “Centre”, apart from the fact that it’s spelled that way everywhere else in the English-speaking world, made etymological sense. Why should Noah Webster change it on a whim? Besides, the spelling is the same in French, and better suited to Canada.

The article covers other Canadian spellings which have survived the American influence, such as the “-our” words like colour, the “ll” words like counsellor and traveller, and the verb-noun distinction in practice(n)” and “practise(v) and licence(n) and license(v). The author is concerned that our schools do not always promote Canadian spelling.

[E]ducational settings must be careful – including a child-care facility being built by the school district itself. A habit set in childhood is a habit set for life. My own daughter, as she was about to graduate high school, wrote an essay using “practice” as a verb. I tried to persuade her to change it to “practise.” She declined. She said that spelling it like that would be weird.That’s the point. If becoming Americanized makes us “normal,” I’m all for being weird.

On word that didn’t survive the American influence is “aluminium”, which is, of course, the original Latin. One story has it that current spelling results from the carelessness of an early American typesetter. Fortunately, his negligence didn’t leave us with “sodum”, “potassum”, “barum”, etc.

And now for the most pernicious American influence of all — on the punctuation of quoted words. You will notice how, in the previous paragraph, for example, the quotation marks do not include the comma, for the comma is not part of the quotation. That is how the rest of the English-speaking world, and the Oxford Canadian English Dictionary, would punctuate it. It’s also how the person in the street would do it, because it’s common sense. But look at the quotation from the Globe and Mail, which, like other Canadian newspapers, continues to do it the American way. This malpractice, too, is said to have resulted from the act of an early typesetter who thought it looked neater if the comma or period were tucked inside the quotation marks. So much for tradition and meaning and common sense!

I will conclude with the last sentence from that quotation, correctly punctuated!

If becoming Americanized makes us “normal”,  I’m all for being weird.

For more articles, see Table of Contents.

Monday, 22 November 2021


I’ve railed a lot against ugly words like “fulsome” and “behaviours” and “precarity” and “incentivize”, so perhaps it’s time to share some of my favourites. To my mind, the best words have a sound about them that evokes their meaning. They are onomatopoeic, or what I call pseudo-onomatopoeic. The word “crag” is an example of the latter. But recently, in a loo in North Saanich, I came upon a truly beautiful onomatopoeic word:


Say it, and feel the tongue moving around your mouth. Four distinct sounds which perfectly convey the process of flushing.

It wasn’t always like this. I remember “pulling the chain” in the old lav back in Perth where the water was stored in a concrete trough above the seat. A chain descended from a lever which released the valve at the bottom of the trough, whereupon the water gushed down a pipe into the bowl, carrying all before it. No sophistication. No meaningful swirl around the bowl. Just a torrent of water. It was effective too. No floaters reappeared. But it could be finicky, not always engaging on the first pull. I can hear it now. You always knew when someone was in the lav.

Clank, clank, clank, gush!

For it wasn’t a flush at all. More of a gush of water down into the bowl. In fact, I don’t think we ever flushed the toilet. “Don’t forget to pull the chain,” my mother would say. 

But back in North Saanich the other day, it was a flush. F-l-u-sh. The water issued forth, swirled around and around, and disappeared with something between a cough, a splutter and a sigh.

Flush. What a beautiful word!

For more about lavs see Dunnies, or consult the Table of Contents.