Monthly Archives: September 2016

bombastic [video]

I’m not normally going to do more than one word review in a week. But my last one was kind of long and full of words, so I thought I’d throw in a short, punchy one… ironic, given the word I’m reviewing.

The ongoing demise of English

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be. As people who have to deal every day with the abuses of common users, we will surely all agree with this sentiment: “our unfortunate ears are doomed not only to excruciate in the torments of bad grammar, but to agonize under the torture of a viciousness of expression and a corruption of phraseology, the ridiculousness of which alone saves us from the death with which we are frequently threatened.”

Does that seem just a touch overstated and stiff? Well, it’s from The Vulgarisms and Improprieties of the English Language, published in 1833 by W.H. Savage, so we have to allow for minor changes in common phraseology. But look, here’s an author not from the 1800s who agrees: “the English language, as it is spoken by the politest part of the nation, and as it stands in the writings of the most approved authors, often offends against every part of grammar.”

That was Robert Lowth, writing in 1762, and standards have obviously degraded since then without our noticing. Even in Lowth’s time things had gone downhill over the preceding half century; compare Jonathan Swift in 1712 telling us “that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; … and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.” Surely we can agree that it is better, and more consistent, to capitalize all Nouns, as Swift and his Contemporaries did.

Too late on that. Our language has been sliding, sliding, sliding. We could have heeded the advice of the pseudonymous author of Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech in 1885, and we would not now say “transpire” when we mean “occur,” or “fix” instead of “make fast” to mean “put in order, repair,” or “smart” to express “cleverness, brightness, or capability.”

We would also, in heeding other style guides of a mere century ago, know better than to write such a monstrosity as “The suspect was planning to use a car to raid the warehouse.” We would know that “suspect” should be “suspicious person,” that “plan” and “raid” are not verbs, and that “car” does not mean “automobile.” But, alas, we have fallen too far.

Or we have grown too far. Growing pains are felt more sharply by some than by others. Just as many of my generation will swear that the best music was written before 1990, quite a few people will insist that the best English is the kind they remember having learned as children. We don’t know, of course, how reliable their memories are, and we may wonder why they haven’t put childish things away, but so it goes. Stern voices over the centuries have taught us that English just isn’t spoken as well as it used to be… and it never has been.

professional [video]

I’ve made another word review video. This one is longer – 14 minutes – because I have a lot to say about the word. I promise future ones will generally be more like 5 minutes. Also, I decided to see how it would come across if I did it without a script. I’ll tell you this: it takes a lot more time! You’re watching take number 6. Because a professional needs to do what it takes to get it right.

Going off the rails on a gravy train

Donald Trump tweeted that line about the gravy train again. How Rob-Ford-esque can he get! I decided to do a little digging to find the origin of the phrase. It’s my latest article for The Week:

Was there ever an actual train that carried gravy?

Singlish damn shiok lah, can speak or not?

My latest article for the BBC is on Singlish, which is the local multilayered vernacular of Singapore. I’m not a Singlish speaker myself, but I happened to have a couple of good sources and a fair bit of useful research. It’s an interesting study in emergent language change – and social and governmental attitudes towards it. And the article is worth it just for the Singlish-overdubbed video I found of a scene from Frozen!

The language the government tried to suppress



A few months ago I talked about the disconnects that resulted in – and from – the closure of the waterpark at Ontario Place. It was being taken down, dismantled. As the summer has gone by, I have seen it from afar, the stair tower standing forlorn, the water gone, the slides gone.

Yesterday I got to see it up close. I got to walk among the ruins. It was nostalgia; it was picturesque as ruins can be; it hurt to see it so, too – I can never quite be inured to loss. I wandered, ruing the decision that led to its ruin, remembering what it was a mere four years ago. It seemed so much longer gone than that. You will see.

Ruins are picturesque, of course. The detritus of superseded civilization: Greek ruins, Roman ruins, medieval ruins: all decaying testaments to decadence, decline and fall. To decline and fall was, in Latin, ruere. That is what gave English – and many European languages – the word ruin, noun and verb. And the plural noun is now what we use for a set of things that have declined and fallen, collapsed into heaps of rubble. We look on these architectural mementi mori with a cultural nostalgia and a sense of the triumph of wild nature. What humans build falls, and plants overtake it. But we don’t always picture the life that went on in these places when they were in their full vigour. We weren’t there.

But I was there. This waterpark: I was there yesterday, looking, remembering when I was there so few years ago, in my swim trunks, grabbing tubes and running up the stairs to slide down curvy couloirs and land with a splash in these…

…now-fetid sloughs filled with not lively joy but inert smithereens.

How did I happen to be there yesterday? There was a run in Ontario Place. I won’t call it a race, because it was not officially timed, and the distance was really 4.3 km, not the nominal 5. But the start-and-finish area was in the open plaza that was just outside the waterpark. We gained entry as participants.

You could see the waterpark ruins right there.

And there was time to wander around before the run. There was even more time after: there was a beer festival associated with the run, and so we could fill our mugs and relax or wander around.

So before the run I wandered over toward the waterpark entrance. It was not blocked off. There were no signs prohibiting entrance, no fences, no dogs, no guards.

Apparently they relied on the fact that that whole area of Ontario Place is normally closed and inaccessible. But yesterday it was not. We had been given access.

After looking briefly, I went over to the start area and, soon enough, ran. The run was as enjoyable as a hilly 5k on a warm, muggy day can be. It was very interesting to see all around Ontario Place again. Most of it is closed but unchanged; it is not in ruins, dismantled, disconnected. They did, I noticed, remove the log that could be swung to ring the large bell. I did not take a picture. I was running.

Back at the beer festival, I knew no one, so I wandered over to look some more.

I went to the splash pool of what had been named the Hydrofuge but was informally called the Toilet Bowl: you slid down a short chute into a big bowl, swirled around a few times, and fell through a hole in the bottom into this pool.

There were a couple of kids climbing on the stairs there. A man and his wife were watching them – their kids. The man told me of the irony of the circumstance: his job was in construction safety. And here was all this out in the open and unsecured, the tractor, the acetylene torch on the landing, the myriad places to fall and be hurt. A checklist of what not to do.

He called the boys down and they went back to the festival. I wandered in farther.

Past the stairs to the path to the stair tower.

To the pool the tubes landed you in. You can see the cutaways in the concrete where the slides sat. You dumped into the water, splashed, gasped, grabbed your tube, walked up and out and handed the tube to an assistant or kept it and ran back up for another go.

It’s all gone down the tubes now.

Some other people were wandering around, taking pictures. One of them offered to take a picture of me using my phone.

Yes, my phone – these are all taken with my iPhone. You didn’t think I ran races with a good camera on me, did you?

That bulge on my left hip is a water bottle in my pocket, by the way.

There’s a taller tower in the background you can see and probably recognize. The two towers in the picture, both entertainment attractions, have another thing in common: my wife has worked at both of them.

I continued on.

The big family-size tubes that went down a big chute landed in their own pool:

NO DIVING. No falling into oblivion and wet entropy.

That warning comes too late. It’s all ruined now.

Reflect on that. From the dry heights we come to the wet depths, but when we look down we see the heights.

I walked up the hill.

At the base of the tower, I looked over and saw that other tower, its observation deck temporarily effaced by a cloud, its continuity maintained by memory and assumption – and physical persistence.

As I adjusted and saved these photos this evening I was playing Led Zeppelin’s BBC Sessions, some rescued and remastered recordings from 45 years ago. Just as I was working on these few, a live performance of “Stairway to Heaven” started playing.

“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” But all that glitters is not gold, and not all gold glitters. And stairways that can be bought can be ruined. And you can climb for all eternity and not be any closer to heaven. Or any farther away from it.

I did not climb the tower stairs. I walked back down the hill.

I saw a few others sitting in the ruins. Beyond, the festival: beer and sweaty runners.

Concrete that has weathered not the assaults of decades and centuries but just of jackhammers and similar heavy equipment.

Nearby is the Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport. I could look up and see planes flying away, taking others to new places, slipping for a short time the tangled vines of the earth – but as inviting as the sky is, they all decline eventually, coming back in their gracefully controlled falls.

As I walked out and back towards the beer, I took one last look and one last photo.

And my iPhone informed me that I had run out of room. It had no more memory available; it was too full of memories – and the present ruins.

brood [video]

I enjoy watching YouTube videos where people review cameras and similar consumer products. I decided I should do occasional videos where I review words. I asked people on Twitter for some suggestions. The first one came from Ann Marie Gamble, who suggested “‘brooding’ as a mood, not a thing a chicken does.” I decided to trim that down to brood. Here it is:

I’ll probably try a few different approaches to these videos over time. We’ll see which comes off best.