Friday, 5 March 2021


The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion
(Tintern Abbey)

I had hesitated over having cataract surgery for a long time. After all, I could see well enough to get by. Why would I replace  my natural lenses with a couple of bits of plastic? Besides, it would be quite literally a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

I wondered what my cataracts had to do with Wordsworth’s  cataracts, the waterfalls that haunted him as he recalled his wanderings in the Lake Distict. Were my cataracts like waterfalls over the eyes?

Yes, it seems. From the Latin word cataracta, meaning waterfall, comes the middle English word "cataract". A second meaning of "cataract" was "portcullis", the medieval gate that descended quickly over a castle entrance, like a waterfall. From this obsolete meaning likely came the name of the medical condition, not that cataracts descend quickly. So that the use of the word for a portcullis was a figurative meaning of “cataract”, and then the medical term was a figurative meaning of the word for a portcullis. It is interesting how the word “waterfall” prevailed over “cataract”, a good example of how old English words are preferred to latinisms.

By the way, note that the surgeon, Dr. Dragicovich, whom I commend, replaced my original lenses with plastic ones, that is, he substituted plastic lenses for the original ones. I mention this only because at a restaurant on the day before my surgery, I noticed this statement on the menu:

Subsutitute fior di latte with Natural Pastures mozzarella di bufala 3 or Cultured Nut dairy free Mozzarella 2 side of grated Parmesan 2, side of hot honey 3

Baffling, even without the misuse of “substitute”. But the server took my correction kindly, and I will return to see if the item has been changed. (See also Substitute and Replace)

Along with the removal of my cataracts, the restoration of my vision has been nothing short of miraculous. I look out to sea at the islands, and all is crisp and clear and bright. 

By the way, I opted for the basic lens covered by our marvellous health service, for which I once again give thanks. Had I paid $1,000 per eye for a special lens, I would not need glasses at all. With the standard lens, I need them only for reading, and the 1.5 magnification reading glasses, costing, appropriately, $1.50 at Dollarama, are quite adequate.

Friday, 2 October 2020


Dunnies on the highway 500 miles north of Perth

In bogs and dunnies, lavs and loos.

Crappers, cans, johns and jakes,

A man's got to do what a man's got to do,

Wherever, whenever, whatever it takes.

A reader was curious about the dunny mentioned in the comment by Grumblebum McWombat in my post on Gender Identity Battlefields. She may be sorry that she asked. Don't read on if you are squeamish.

A dunny is an Australian outhouse.

The first of these I really remember, at five years old, was along the back fence, a long trek from the house, furnished not with toilet paper but squares of the West Australian attached to a nail in the wall by a loop of string. Why was the dunny out the back against the fence? Well, sewage had replaced an earlier system of collection by the nightcart man who would travel along the back lane, stop at each house, and open a little trapdoor to remove, empty, and replace the dunny can which resided beneath the toilet seat. Not the most enjoyable job. So in the nineteen-forties we could "pull the chain" to flush the toilet, but the dunny remained an uncomfortable distance away from the house if you were caught short. In fact, one of my earliest memories is being admonished by my grandmother for peeing in the drain just outside the back door.

As time passed in suburban Australia. the dunny moved into the house, perhaps spending some time on the back porch, and then finding its place in or next to the bathroom, where it was politely known as the Lav.

At six years old, I entered First Bubs at the primary school. There, the dunnies were out in the playground, the urinal a vast, black concrete wall against which we would see who could pee the highest. And on some visit to the cubicle I must have seen on the wall that piece of dirty doggerel known in one of its many versions to every Australian boy: about what Captain Cook did behind the Dunny Door.

Later, I learned an expression to describe a prodigious stench. The WACA (pronounced Wakka) was the West Austalian Cricket Ground where major cricket and football matches were played.

It stinks like the dunnies at the WACA at halftime.

You wii have gathered that "dunny" (or "dunnies"), like the terms in the verse above, is rather a loose term, and might apply to the facilities in general or the WC in particular. But the true Australian dunny was to be found in the outback or the bush or on a farm without a sewage or septic system, set well away from the house, with good reason. Typically, the small shed was made of corrugated iron, cold in winter, stinking hot in summer, or rather stinking and hot, and the flies were satiated and abundant. The visitor "sat" on the toilet seat above the box-like structure hiding what was beneath.

The dunny was rather like a Canadian biffy, but with a very significant difference: instead of the long drop, it was often a very short drop indeed, into the dunny can, which if full could result in an unfortunate splash, so that the occupant was forced to do a kangaroo, that is, squat at some height above the toilet seat and hope for the best. Sorry for the detail, but you asked.

This was the true, and original dunny, "dunny" from "dunnekin", English dialect for "dung house".

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Gender-Identity Battlefields

Sometimes the comments on an article in the Guardian are as interesting as the article itself. In one that I read recently, they were more interesting. They were easier to understand as well. In a comment on an article by an Australian academic, entitled “Public bathrooms are gender-identity battlefields”, a reader wrote: 

I fully agree with the sentiments expressed in this article, but sentences like “the positive reinforcement of gender-neutral language and pronouns works with designs for lived experiences of gender that exist outside the male and female binary” need to be taken out and shot.

The writer was arguing that symbols of the conveniences within should replace words or even the typical pictograms of men and women in the signage on public toilets, and that persons should make their choice accordingly.

The ever-inclusive Oak Bay United Church in Victoria felt this way as well. For a time, the traditional Men’s and Women’s signs on the toilets were replaced by graphic representations of cubicles and urinals. One would enter a door marked either with two cubicles, or two urinals and one cubicle. 

Fortunately, a year or two later, common sense prevailed. The Men’s and Women’s signs were back, along with an appropriate welcome to persons of either or neither gender. Perhaps one of the 98% of the population happy to self-identify as male or female had felt left out when the traditional signs were taken down. I for one am always happy to see written signs, for I can read but have difficulty with symbols, and have walked into the wrong washroom on occasion.

Writers of articles in favour of eliminating toilets exclusively for men or women dismiss the argument, supported by J. K. Rowling in the recent controversy, that women feel safer when persons of masculine appearance cannot enter their space. But many of the comments on this article, made in polite and articulate language, argued in favour of facilities for women only. 

However, the most practical comment, written in a better style than the article itself, was from Grumblebum McWombat, . 

As long as the dunny works, I'm happy.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Children’s Truce Terms: Fainites and Barleys

Happily, the Deaf Old Buggers are still three in number. Recently, one of them was recalling his days at the orphanage in England in the nineteen-forties. This was not an institution for the faint-hearted, and fights among the boys were not uncommon. There was, however, a certain code of honour. You could not hit your opponent when he was down; you had to wait for him to get up again. And it was possible to call a truce at any time: “Fainites,” you would cry.

This reminded me of my days as a child in Australia where we too would fight from time to time, and  would have a call for truce, although perhaps it was more a call of surrender. When your opponent had you on the ground in a neck-hold, if you managed to gasp out “Barleys”, he would have to release you.

I remember on one occasion, one of us cried “Barleys”, and the victor retorted: “You can’t say ‘barleys’ when the Japs are after you.” This was a legitimate remark in Australia just after the Second World War.

“Barleys” and “fainites”, and their variations, are but two of many truce words used in children’s games, according to the authority on this topic, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Iona and Peter Opie. In some cases they date back to the  Middle Ages.

In answering a question about the origin of “fainites” in the Guardian column “Notes and Queries”, Meff Lewis writes:

The word itself derives from the 14th- century "feine" or "faine", itself deriving from the Old French se feindre meaning "to make excuses, hang back, back out (esp. of battle)". The "nites" part may have originated in "faine Sir Knight", a medieval truce in non-mortal combat or jousting. JRR Tolkien points out the Chaucerian usage where, in the Clerk's Tale, a servant says "that lordes heestes mowe nat been yfeyned", meaning that his orders could not be treated with a "fain I" (I decline) but must be obeyed.

As with “fainites”, “barleys” dates back to the Middle Ages as well, appearing as a truce term (barlay) in the 14th century poem, “St. Gawain and the Green Knight”. The possible origins of the word are fascinating. To cry barleyfummilin in old Scots is to ask for a truce. In an old English and Scottish chasing game Barley Break, the action seems to have begun with the cry, “Barley Break” to end the barley or parley, that is, the preliminary talking, and to start chasing. Could a participant then cease the action, by crying, “Barley”? This seems to me the most likely origin of the term, from the English word parley, from the French parler.

In a discussion of the word “barleys” in the online Australian MacQuarie Dictionary, contributors reveal that this was the truce word used universally across Australia, not so much in a fight as I remember it, but as a call for a pause in any game such as chasey (tag) if you had to dash off to the dunny (loo). Perhaps our simple Australian  game of chasey could be traced back to the more elaborate Barley Break. Sometimes “barleys”, or “barlees”, or   “barleese”, for as part of the oral tradition it was never written down, was stressed on the first syllable, sometimes the second, and in Australian fashion, sometimes it was shortened to “bars”.

We may be near the end of an oral tradition extending back hundreds of years. As with skipping rhymes, we never picked up these terms from our parents, but from other kids. They were passed on, as children’s subculture, not from generation to generation, but within generations, from older to younger kids. A little girl ventures out onto the playground and is invited into the game, perhaps to make up numbers. She absorbs “the lore and language of childhood”. Sadly, this tradition may be dying as children play more “sophisticated” electronic games and text instead of talk.

These are only two of many terms discussed in the interesting article in Wikipedia, “Truce Terms” from which I have gleaned much of this information. The third of the DOBs, who was a young kid in the late nineteen thirties in Ontario, had no recollection of any such words. They may not have caught on in Canada. Perhaps readers will share some memories from their childhood. For another of the DOBs’ excursions into language, see Deaf Old Buggers in a Subjunctive Mood.

Friday, 7 August 2020

Woke: an Old Word with a New Meaning

I’m only an ordinary bloke
And used to think the word “woke”
Was just the past tense of a verb, nothing more.
But now it’s a new adjective
Applied to folk sensitive
Who social and racial injustice abhor.

At times a militant Woke
Will cancel an ordinary bloke
Who offers a different opinion than he.
Offence may be quite unintended
But the very least said, soonest mended,
Oppositional viewpoints not accepted, you see.

(Ordinary bloke protests)
“It was only my personal view,
And nothing to do with you, 
It was certainly not my intention to slight.”

(Militant Woke responds)
“Despite your earnest confession,
Twas an act of microaggression,
To not be offended, that is my right!”

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Down with Singular “They”

I hope that I’m not cancelled by the Woke community for expressing this opinion. It’s not just J. K. Rowling or Margaret Atwood or Steven Lewis who face the threat of cancellation for expressing an opinion that inadvertently offends someone; humble folk like me can be cancelled as well. A friend’s daughter feels threatened, not even because she disagreed with an opinion on Facebook, but because she failed to support it. If I lose even half my readers for committing a small act of microaggression, I will have only three left.

But I must speak out against the general use of the singular “they”. Recently I was reading a story about a mail deliverer who encountered a savage dog. I read that they managed to escape the dog, and I thought, whoops, I didn’t realize there were two of them. I must have missed the appearance of a second person. But no, it was a singular “they”.  There was only one person. For some reason the writer was reluctant, or even afraid, to identify the mail deliverer as male or female in the beginning and then use the masculine or feminine singular pronoun thereafter.

There has to be a balance, doesn’t there, between discretion and clarity? Perhaps the writer thought that the sex of the mail deliverer was irrelevant, or perhaps the mail deliverer had not wished to be identified as either male or female, but the reader needs to know whether there was one person, or more. Unfortunately, we don’t have a singular pronoun in English that will stand for a person of either or neither sex, but please, let’s not use the pronoun “they”, which for many of us still denotes (and connotes) plurality. In the story that I read, if the writer had not wished to specify the sex of the mail deliverer, the writer could have avoided the pronoun altogether by repeating the noun, as I just did. A bit awkward, but better than confusion or misinformation. But 98% of the time, the subject of the story will be happy to be identified as he or she, so why not relate that information to the reader?

Some people may wish to be referred to as “they” in the singular, and that is fine with me, but in other circumstances, where it’s possible and appropriate to use “he” or “she”, let’s do it. I know that Shakespeare is supposed to have used a singular “they”, but I’m sure that Hamlet would have said:

To yield or not to yield, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
These foul abuses of our native tongue,
Remaining mute, forsooth, in fear of being 
Cancell├ęd, in consequence of having caused
Offence, however inadvertently,
To Someone with a Different Point of View. —
Or to take arms against Grammatical
Absurdity, like Plural Pronouns forced
To play a different role against
Their very nature: a Singular
Obscenity, Unnatural and Foul.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Language Evolves

My eleven-year-old granddaughter made my day. “Did you have a fun time at the cabin?” someone asked. “I had lots of fun,” she replied. 

We had spent a delightful day at the family’s cabin at Nora Lake. An idyllic spot overlooking the water, inaccessible by road until a few years ago, off the grid, no wifi, no cell phone reception unless you climbed a hill searching for a click. You enjoyed yourself in old-fashioned ways: hiking, swimming, sitting, reading, thinking, and eating and drinking. There were mosquitos, of course, and fierce, biting flies, but after all, this was Manitoba. No poison ivy though, and as yet, I haven’t pulled off any ticks.  The silence was palpable, broken only by the rumble of CP trains crossing the viaduct between the lakes.

This was cabin-living as it used to be, as far removed from modern cottage accommodation as you can imagine. Everyone slept higgledy-piggledy in a a wooden shack built almost a century ago and little changed since then. The lights and stove were fuelled by propane, water was drawn from the lake, and the calendar on the wall gave you the date in 1963. A few steps up he hill was a charming, sweet-smelling biffy, a place for silent contemplation, a room with a view.

But I digress. Did you have a fun time at the cabin?” someone had asked. “I had lots of fun,” my granddaughter replied. “‘Fun time’ doesn’t sound right,” she said. “No,” said my daughter, “that’s because ‘fun’ is a noun, not an adjective, although some people use it as one.” (My daughter is a grammarian, but also a psychiatrist, so she is in no way judgemental, like me.)

I was interested. “Your brother,” I asked, “The other night, he sneaked, or snuck, out of the house?”. “Snuck,” she said. Ah. “And he dived, or dove, off the rocks?” “He dove off the rocks,” she said. Well, at least he didn’t dive off of the rocks, I thought.

I am happy to know that “fun” hasn’t gone totally gone over to the other side, and along with a few of my peers I will continue to use “sneaked” and “dived” as the past tense and past participles of those verbs, but perhaps when I do, people of my granddaughter’s generation will say to themselves, “Silly old fart. Didn’t he learn any grammar at school?” Language evolves.