Many of us take literacy for granted.  I remember before I started kindergarten, when I asked my mother one day about what all these words on signs meant, and she started to tell me about reading.  I couldn’t wait to learn.  She taught me some, and school taught me some more.  That’s how it’s supposed to go, right?  Reading is passed on from one generation to the next, and it’s just a part of life.  But what if you can’t read?  What’s that like?

I read a pretty good answer to that question the other day in a story by Joseph Wittlin entitled “The Emperor and the Devil” (anthologized in A World of Great Stories, H. Haydn and J. Cournos (eds.), New York: Crown, 1947).   It’s about a man named Peter Neviadomski, born 1873, who had three times been passed by for conscription into the Polish army because he was the sole breadwinner in his family.  His luck ran out one day when he was visited by a railwayman named Corporal Durek, who reached into his bag, pulled out a blue paper, and showed it to him.  It was a summons to report for military service.  Peter knew what it said without reading it.  He couldn’t read it.  He was illiterate.  Durek could, of course, so he had all the power.

Peter’s attitudes may be summarized in two excerpts from the story.  The first one refers to the invention of the printing press (p. 666):

Gutenberg, Johann Gutenberg, was the name of that man whom the devil made drunk with Rhine wine in Mainz, and who, in the year 1450, invented a new torture for those who knew nothing of letters, for the meek in spirit.  Possessed by the devil, Gutenberg, in league with a certain Faust, founded the first printing works.  From that time on the devilish business spread like a cholera plague, to bewilder, bewitch, and poison, day and night, grasping souls imprisoned by the pride of knowledge.  But also since then so much harmless paper has been blackened by the devil’s marks that the whole globe might be wrapped in it, yet, in the year 1914, there were still many righteous souls, especially in the district of Snyatin, who had not yielded to temptation.  They did not falter, even when confronted by compulsory school attendance, by fines and by imprisonment, preferring to pay, or to languish in jail, rather than to afflict the souls of their children with the Latin or Cyrillian alphabet….

Peter continues on, comparing literacy with all that is evil in the world, and faulting governments for perpetuating that evil.  When Corporal Durek, as an instrument of the government, presented Peter with the summons, here is what transpired (p. 667):

The Corporal knew quite well that Peter couldn’t read, but all the same he handed the calling-up order over to him, with an air of not knowing anything of the kind.  That Neviadomski should be compelled to ask him to read out the contents of the paper flattered his vanity.  In his relations with people who could read, Durek was no more than the executor of a higher power, but in dealing with people who couldn’t read, he felt that he was not only the partner of that Power, aware of its intentions, but also the representative of its culture.  To such people he personified not only the punishment of guilt, and not only the key to prison cells, but also the key to all the secrets of the written word.  So Durek couldn’t refrain from enjoying his superiority over Neviadomski, although he hadn’t the smallest intention of gloating over the misfortune of the lowly.  Quite the contrary.  Not an hour ago he had spoken with sympathy of this very misfortune in the hall of a neighboring country house to which he had taken a preliminary notice of a requisition for fodder, and where he had been welcomed with a small glass of vodka, a piece of cake and cigarettes:

“Our people are still very uneducated, gracious Countess—the minimum of illiterates is 80 per cent.”

The word “minimum” was intended to show that he himself belonged to the educated.

Neviadomski did not disappoint him.  He cast a helpless look at the paper and said:

“Will you do me the favor, Herr Korporal? …”

The Corporal was used to this procedure and enjoyed it.  He quickly broke the seal, glanced at the date and announced sternly:

“In five days’ time, punctually at nine o’clock in the morning, before the Draftboard in Snyatin.”

Durek then read Peter the entire message and enjoyed every minute of it.

Power.  That’s what literacy is.  


A New Club

It’s hard to believe that it’s been about fifty years since Monty Python came out with a quick mention of the British Well Basically Club.  In case you somehow don’t remember this, someone asked an expert a question about bullfighting (I think it was), and the man started his response with “Well, basicallly, …” and then he said what he wanted to say.  I remember this because it was so true to life.  There really were, and still are, a lot of people who preface their comments with that phrase.  I’ve tried to avoid saying that ever since, well, basically, sometime in the 1970s.

Lately I’ve been noticing that we might need to start another club.  Maybe this one’s only an American club?  We could call it The Absolutely Club.  Like “Well, basically,” it’s usually said in response to a question, and it’s the first thing out of someone’s mouth.  This happens a lot in radio and television interviews, but you might hear it in normal conversation too.  Sometimes it makes sense, like when it just means yes: “Do you like your new job?”  “Absolutely.  I love it.”  But more and more I’m hearing it in response to other questions: “How long have you lived in Chicago?”  “Absolutely.  I’ve been there for five years.”  And then sometimes it’s just an acknowledgement that it’s time to take a turn in the conversation, and maybe agree with something the first speaker said: “I’ve never really cared for this job.”  “Absolutely.  The health care coverage is good though.”  And then there are a few people who just throw in “absolutely” the first word they say, no matter what.  It’s marks the speaker’s territory, I suppose; it’s kind of like “I have the floor now.  It’s your turn to listen.”  Something like: “I have to go pretty soon because if I don’t get going the store will be closed, and I really need to … ”  “Absolutely.  I should be getting along myself.”

I don’t know how we fall into these patterns of speech, but we do.  It’s all unconscious.  I looked up the word on Google, by the way, and it means “with no qualification, restriction, or limitation; totally”; synonyms include completely, totally, utterly, perfectly, entirely, wholly, fully, quite, thoroughly, unreservedly, definitely, certainly, positively, unconditionally, unquestionably, no doubt, and undoubtedly.  I wonder why “absolutely” works so well in conversation and the other ones don’t?

So if you’re bored this summer, why not join a new club?  Make new friends in The Absolutely Club!


Words have a way of changing their definitions over time.  I’ve talked about how “awesome” used to have a very strong meaning, but now practically anything can be awesome because the word is thrown around so casually.  That’s one way that words change, but there’s another way—a general broadening of the meaning.  The word’s basic significance stays the same, but it seems to apply to more people or situations.  One of the latest of these involves who’s “racist” and who isn’t.  When I was growing up, it was assumed that you had to do or say some pretty terrible, prejudicial things in order to be a racist.  You had to act like a southern “states’ rights” person from the 1960s or so, and most of us didn’t meet that standard.  That’s all changed though.  It’s easy to be a racist nowadays.  All you have to do is buy the wrong pancake syrup.  Apparently it’s my fault that the best syrups have these old, horrible names that should have been changed about eighty years ago?

Which brings me to a happier subject, “bionics.”  The word was coined in 1958, according to my trusted Wikipedia, by a certain Jack E. Steele to mean a combination of biology and electronics.  I didn’t know the word was that old when I was growing up in the 1970s, back when I wasn’t a racist yet; I just knew that it was biology plus electronics, like on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman.  They both had bionic legs and a bionic arm; he had an eye, and she had an ear.  These were highly-advanced artificial limbs that had an atomic power pack attached to make them super strong and create excellent TV stories for people like me to watch.  The meaning of the word hadn’t changed from its original yet, but it was becoming more popular.  

The story here is that once a word becomes popular, it changes.  Nowadays we have real bionic limbs like on television, minus the atomic power, but the word “bionic” itself has morphed into something else.  New Apple IPads have “bionic chips” that, presumably, are much better than the regular old chips that everyone else uses.  Apple always has to be high tech, you know.  There’s a “Bionic Floodlight” advertised on television now, an outdoor light that spreads so much light around that I wonder if it’s an environmental hazard.  And then there’s the “Bionic Flex Pro,” a garden hose that puts other garden hoses to shame.  Here’s its product description on  (I fixed the grammar a little.)

The Bionic Force Pro Garden Hose is made from high performance MXZ-7 Fiber Stronger than ever – to ensure that it is literally the last hose you’ll ever buy. It is crush resistant, corrosion free, rust free, kink resistant, durable and lightweight hose. It is virtually indestructible.

Sounds a lot like Steve Austin and Jaime Summers to me.

The TV shows were based on a novel entitled Cyborg, an okay novel by Martin Caidin from 1972 in which Colonel Austin goes on dangerous missions to save the world.  It passed the time just fine.  From the TV shows until now, though, bionics have come to mean a lot more than just biology plus electronics.  I think anything high tech and strong can be bionic now.  Bionic ceiling fans, anyone?


I’ve always been fairly careful to avoid swearing.  I don’t know exactly why.  I suppose it’s how I was brought up.  I’m not perfect about it at all though, but I manage to watch what I say fairly well.  I used to say that I only swear when I parallel park, and I solved that problem: I just stopped parallel parking.  I don’t say that anymore because I notice that I’m getting older and angrier, and the words are slipping out more than they used to.  But is it really bad to swear?

Maybe.  If you swear too often, the words lose their potency, and no one will notice that you’re saying anything different from what you usually say.  It’s like using the word “awesome” in every sentence; after a while, nobody knows how you feel because everything is awesome.  Swearing can be a real turn off to many people, and it’ll be more appropriate when you’re playing a sport, for example, than when you’re in a job interview.  It could be that sports evoke a lot more emotion than job interviews, so it’s likely that you’re going to swear more then, especially if you don’t play very well.  In fact, as I learned last night on Crowd Science on the BBC World Service, swear words seem to be housed not in the language centers located in the left hemisphere of the brain, Wernicke’s Area and Broca’s Area, but instead on the right, where the emotions live.  I guess.  I’m not bothering to look up this information about the brain because it’s sure to get more technical than my little brain can deal with, but it makes sense.  I seem to recall an old man who couldn’t really speak English but could swear a blue streak.  He could express emotions but not ideas, I suppose.  Maybe swearing is like a dog barking.  It conveys a message, either anger or maybe even joy in some situations.  

The words themselves change from culture to culture, but often they involve reproductive functions or someone’s ancestry.  Using them can make you feel better, and there’s even research showing that swearing reduces physical pain.  Crowd Science showed that swearing when your hand is submerged in ice water helped with the pain, and I’m pretty sure that Mythbusters on television a few years ago had similar results.  Researchers have also shown that people have to use real swear words too, not fake ones, because the fake ones don’t make them feel better.  I’d guess that the made-up swear words are located in the left hemisphere, and that’s not where the real ones are.  The fake words can sound ridiculous to listeners as well, and that’s bad because some of the reason for swearing is normally to let other people know how you feel or what you think of something.  Just watch the first episode of Ironside, the one where Raymond Burr’s character gets shot, and you’ll see how silly his consistent use of the word “flaming” is.  Maybe in the 1960s he didn’t sound quite so strange though.  Our standards have changed over time.

It’s also hard to swear in a foreign language.  I used to try in Spanish, and I could do it—quite a lot more than I ever can in English, in fact—but I never felt anything.  I suppose that’s because English for me is more in my heart than in my head, and here we go again, talking about expressing emotion more than ideas.  I even made a study of Costa Ricans’ use of the popular “son of …” expression and came up with nine different variations, but I can’t print any of them here.  Like I said, it’s how I was brought up.

Which brings me to my final little story for today.  I was watching ABC’s World News Tonight with my grandmother in about 1983, and there were big protests going on in Argentina.  They’d just lost the Falklands War, or the Malvinas as they call them, and the people were protesting against their government by marching through the streets carrying signs, some of which had the classical version of the expression I just mentioned.  Obviously no one at ABC knew any Spanish or else this visual would never have been allowed on the air.  Anyway, I was sitting there with my grandmother in Corydon, Iowa, and she felt sorry for those people.  She said, and I quote: “It must be hard to have to speak a foreign language your whole life.” 

I’ll leave you with that thought.

Getting a Message Out

If you’ve got a message that you want everyone in the community to hear, what do you do?  Anything involving the internet is going to leave out a lot of people, so that’s no good.  Television isn’t watched as much as it used to be, and it’s probably expensive to put a message on there.  Nobody reads newspapers anymore, right?  So what do you do?

In the case of the Dubuque County Public Health Incident Management Team, you put something in people’s mailboxes.  The other day I received this really colorful 12 inch by 9 inch double-sided information sheet on card stock of some sort, and the first thing I read on it was “VACCINE ACCESS” listed in black letters in the top right corner.  Underneath that it read, in smaller red caps, “PLEASE DO NOT CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER OR PUBLIC HEALTH ABOUT GETTING VACCINATED AT THIS TIME.”  (Do not call your “public health”?  Oh well.)  Then underneath that, in black letters but not all caps, it says, “Vaccinations will first be given to priority groups decided by the CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health.  Examples include: healthcare workers, nursing home residents, first responders, essential workers, adults with high-risk medical conditions, and older adults.”  And then underneath that, still on the right side of the page, this time in white letters with an orange background, it says, “Please get vaccinated when supplies increase and you are eligible.  Vaccinations will be free and are expected to be available to all adults at healthcare providers, pharmacies, and vaccination clinics.”  There’s a star beside the word “adults,” which is because “Vaccines for children are not yet available.”  There a note across the bottom of the page (in white letters with a red background) that says, “VACCINES ARE NOT YET AVAILABLE FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC.”  Then there’s more information below that in red letters with a white background, and there are various other colors all over the page with general information, and on the other side there’s a black background with an abstract rendering of the virus on it and six different font/color combinations of print, and another orange section entitled “What Local Experts Want You to Know,” and the whole thing is visually stunning, a real attention-grabber.  It looks like a modern textbook, it’s so beautiful.  I’ve often wondered how children learn anything from such beautiful books.

The information is pretty good though.  I never expect much information content when I see catchy graphics, but this mailing isn’t bad.  It explains all about COVID-19 and repeats the usual CDC guidelines for “stopping the spread,” as we say now (social distancing, washing hands, etc.), and as I read this, my first thought was that I’d heard this a thousand times for about a year on television.  The thing is, not everyone watches television much, so maybe this is news for them.  It’s written at an adult level too, which struck me as odd.  I’m used to a junior-high reading level from doctors’ pamphlets, I suppose.  As an example, here’s the answer to the question “How safe is the vaccine and what about side effects?” as stated by Dr. Hendrik Schultz, a member of the Dubuque County Board of Health:

The safety of the COVID-19 vaccine has been closely monitored by the CDC, FDA, and other agencies.  The possibility of having an allergic reaction is rare and extremely small.  A mild immune reaction is a common side effect, however.  We intend for this to happen when you receive a vaccination, as your immune system forms a response to build protection.”

I don’t know how many people in Dubuque County read their mail addressed to “Postal Customer” as thoroughly as I do, but for people who do, this method of getting the word out is very effective.  I can’t help thinking about the homeless though, and people who don’t read well enough to wade through all of this verbiage.  Hopefully social service agencies can help them.

Happy New Year

This year hasn’t gotten off to a very good start, so I’ve been looking around my house for some inspiration.  Any positive messages would do, I guess.  As usual, the advertisers have the best ones.  Here’s a selection:

From my bathroom, here’s Raw Sugar Simply Hand Wash: “Living Purely Unfiltered. We find goodness in simplicity and beauty in being real.  This consciously crafted hand wash preserves our belief that less is more and that the simplest things in life can make the biggest difference.  Love your skin.  Love yourself.”  This one goes on to add: “Sugar Note: Inner beauty is the most beautiful look on you.”  The soap bottle is signed by “Ronnie and Donda” Co-Founders.”

From next to my refrigerator, I’ve got a package of Nature Valley Granola Bars.  On the back of the package it says “we are better outside,” all in small letters, then on a side panel that statement is explained: “When we get outside, something amazing happens.  You can feel it.  It can make us feel more energized, helps manage stress, and strengthen our families.  We think the world could use a little more of that.”  Then it adds in all caps: “WE ARE BETTER OUTSIDE.”  Apparently we feel kind of small before we use their soap in a bottle, but after using it, we feel good enough to use ALL CAPS.  And go outside.  Or something.

From inside the fridge, here’s Dannon Light + Fit Greek yogurt:  “Add Some Light. It’s a simple idea, really.  Because healthy living isn’t all or nothing.  It’s more of a DO-WHAT-WORKS-FOR-YOU KIND OF THING.  So, let’s all lighten up a bit, shall we?  Nobody’s perfect & that’s fine by us.  Because keeping things light lets YOU DO YOU.”  

From my freezer, here’s Bellatoria pizza: “Come to Bellatoria—a warm and inviting place where you’re always welcome.  This is where friends and family gather to relax, share lively conversation and enjoy good food.  Bellatoria Pizzas bring the spirit, flavor and traditions of Italy to your table with delicious varieties of crusts and toppings that taste like they were prepared especially for you.  Buon Gusto!”

From my living room, here’s Easy Freestyle Crosswords by Martin Ashwood-Smith. “Take five and ease up—freestyle!  With the 72 all-new puzzles in this book, beginners can try themeless crosswords, usually reserved for experts only.  Wide-open grids allow longer, fresher, and more interesting words and phrases than what’s typically found in themed crosswords.  And easy clues add to the fun.  It’s time to put your feet up, unplug, and loosen up while solving freestyle puzzles!”

So the puzzles aren’t that great and I usually have to look up some answers in the back, but at least eating and puzzling are better than watching TV these days.  Happy New Year, everybody!


I’ve got a new toy.  I bought a little internet radio, and it uses wifi to get stations from all over the world quickly and easily.  It doesn’t really do anything that a computer can’t, but I like it because it’s so simple.  You just press one button, and the radio comes on to the last station you were on when you turned it off.  For me, that’s usually the BBC World Service.  They have international news that we never hear about from other stations, and they don’t have any commercials either.  

You have to get used to how they say things sometimes though.  It’s usually a fairly innocuous little turn of phrase that strikes me as interesting and nothing more, but a couple of weeks ago I heard something that made me sit up straight in my chair.  It involved the new COVID vaccines that were coming out.  Britain was first to approve the Pfizer vaccine, and they said on the radio that the people could expect to get the first “jabs” within a matter of days.  Jabs?  Do they really say that?

It turns out that they do.  Apparently the word doesn’t imply a strong physical thrust like it does in American English (or at least that’s my theory), so people won’t mind getting a jab anymore than they’d think twice about getting any other shot.  When PBS ran a BBC television spot of people getting vaccinated, Judy Woodruff first explained that the word “jab” referred to a “shot” or “injection,” if I recall correctly, and then the English television news reporter used the word more than once.  Some news stories on the BBC use the word repeatedly to the point that I start feeling sick.  Jab jab jab.  I don’t know why that bothers me.  

So is it just me?  Am I completely crazy?  My copy of The Random House College Dictionary (revised edition, 1984) lists the definition as “1. to poke, or thrust smartly or sharply, as with the end or point of something,” and then it goes on: “2. to punch, esp. with a short, quick blow.”  In other words, Muhammad Ali had a great left jab.  Those are the only two verbs listed; the nouns have the same two meanings that the verbs have.  I have to go to my Kindle dictionaries, the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English, to find a special usage for jab; they say it’s “a hypodermic injection,” though they say it’s “informal” and the second one also lists it as “British.”  I’ve heard it on the CBC from Canada too, come to think of it, but not as frequently.

So here I am, happily playing with my latest toy, another pandemic purchase that I’d not have made in normal times, and I’m thinking about when I can get jabbed.  It’ll be a few months, it looks like.  That’ll be enough time to prepare myself for the experience.   

Mamma Mia!

Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer best known for emphasizing environmental issues and scientific detail in his stories.  He writes about everything under the sun though, and as far as I know, there’s never really been another writer like him.  He never writes the same story twice, and when you read Robinson, you’re in for a roller coaster ride.  Philosophy, the arts, pop culture, politics—it’s all there.  He writes about all of it.

And language, of course.  In his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, Robinson writes about a near future in which climate change gets worse to the point that the United Nations appoints a special ministry to deal with the problem.  They don’t have much power, but over time, people start to take action and improve the situation.  Toward the end of the novel, one of the main characters talks about a special event, an appointed time when all the world’s people come together to sing.  Here’s an extended excerpt:

So the time came and we listened to the voices on our phones.  We are the children of this planet, we are going to sing its praises all together, all at once, now is the time to express our love, to take the responsibilities that come with being stewards of this earth, devotees of this sacred space, one planet, one planet, on and on it went, it seemed clear to me that the original had been written in some other language, that we were listening to a translation into English, and if fact you could tap around and hear what was being said in other languages; Gupta insisted on listening to it in Sanskrit, which he admits he doesn’t understand when spoken, though he reads it, but he claimed that what we were hearing had to have been written or thought originally in Sanskrit, maybe even thousands of years ago, and in fact the Sanskrit version did sound very primal, which made me curious and I clicked around and found a version in Proto-IndoEuropean, why not?  It sounded like Spanish.  I switched to Basque, supposedly a living fossil of a language, and it too sounded like Spanish.  Actually both sounded quite a bit stranger than Spanish, older than Spanish, odd harsh primal sounds, but no more so than Dutch or many another language that isn’t Hawaiian, you always hear all the same sounds, and no matter which language I tapped on, I kept hearing mamma Gaia.  Yes of course mamma would be one of the oldest words, maybe the first word, invented over and over by babies trying their best to talk but having limited control of their mouths, and yet always trying to say the same thing, to beseech or celebrate that great goddess filling their sight, the fountain and source of all food, warmth, touch, love, and eye contact—mamma!  I cried out that night on the ridge, seeing the why of it for the first time, the why of everything, of course it’s a category error on my part to genderize the planet in that crass way, but we were high that night on the worldwide lovefest, and since everyone else was singing and cheering and hooting as after having caught a great ride on a great wave, I just kept shouting Mamma Mia!  Mamma Mia!  Because of course, being human, the other first word we speak is always me, mine, me me me, and God bless the Italians and whoever else in the Romance languages for holding fast to that very first Ur phrase, the same in all the languages, I check Proto-IndoEuropean and sure enough it was the same there too, Mamma Mia!  Mamma Mia!  Genius of a language!

Like I said, a roller coaster ride.  And what a ride!  

Robinson, Kim Stanley (2020). The Ministry for the Future. New York: Orbit.

Color Vocabulary

I’m halfway through this ten-hour video workshop, and I can’t help but notice that the language the participants are using is quite different from my own.  For example, I’ve got this big printed manual with pages in three different colors, and the names of the colors seem odd to me.  The white papers are always “white,” so that’s no problem, but then the yellow ones are referred to as “canary” and the light brown or off-white ones so far have been called “ivory,” “blush,” “eggshell,” or (get this!) “ecru.”  Yes, ecru.  It’s pronounced with a long “ee” sound as in the word “see.”  I looked it up, and it’s a real word.  The amazing thing is, how do these people know all these words?  It’s like over thirty years ago when I had different colored files at my workstation, and my boss wanted me to bring her the “burgundy” one.  I had to ask around to figure out which file she wanted.

Apparently they know them because they’re women, and according to research I’ll get to in a moment, it’s because women either shop for clothes more than I do (which is never), or they redecorate rooms (also never).  The organizers of this workshop are all women, as are at least eighty percent of the participants.  There’s research going back at least as far as 1911 that deals with women’s color vocabularies, and Robin Lakoff’s famous work Language and Woman’s Place (1975) basically states this as fact: Women know more color words.  It turns out that there’s color research available out there that’s fun to read, and it makes you think a little bit.

The one I like, and don’t ask me why, is from Elaine Rich of Carnegie-Mellon University.  It’s from 1977, so it’s a few years old, but it’s so simple I thought I’d summarize it here.  Rich colored two-inch squares in the center of 25 index cards in different colors; she used crayons from Crayola’s box of 64 for the purpose.  She then showed the cards to subjects one at a time and asked them to tell her what the color was.  (She didn’t time how long it took them to respond as had other researchers.)   The subjects were men (aged 20-35, grad students or working in a “technical field”), men (aged 45-60, trained in a technical field, “highly educated”), women (aged 20-35), either technical or nontechnical but highly educated), women (aged 45-60, most of them married to the older men), and, somewhat oddly, Catholic nuns.  Most of the nuns were over 30.  They all wore habits too.  Hmmm.  Okay, I say.  The idea, I suppose, was that people in a technical field (Carnegie-Mellon folks, no doubt) would maybe know more colors.  Or at least I think that’s the idea.  Fortunately, the results didn’t show anything related to profession was important, so I can skip this part.  I would tell you how many subjects were in each group too, but I honestly don’t know much more than the fact that “the groups ranged in size from seven to 24 subjects.”  That’s not enough subjects, but oh well.  I’m assuming they’re all native English speakers?

The procedure was simple: You show each card to a subject, and the subject is supposed to imagine this scenario: “You have bought a shirt and now want to buy a pair of pants to match the shirt.  You go into a store but haven’t got the shirt with you.  You want to say to the sales-person, ‘I have a _____ shirt.  Show me a pair of pants to go with it.’”  That seems like a fairly direct and slightly impolite way to say that, but it seems plausible enough to really happen.

The responses were coded with points awarded like this: Basic (1 point) for words like “red” or “green”; Qualified (2 points) for “light blue” or “greenish yellow,” for example; Qualified Fancy (3 points) for using a fancier qualifier, as in “brick red” or “hunter green”; and Fancy (4 points) for the colors I noted in my introduction, or for the examples used in the research paper: “lavender,” “magenta,” and “chartreuse.”  Yeah, those are all a bit fancy for me.  Note that since there are 25 cards, the maximum score for each subject is 100.

Results time!  It turns out that, sure enough, “women use fancier words than men” (to quote the results section).  Also, Rich reports, “Younger men use fancier words than older men.”  This could be because when men get older, their wives buy their shirts for them, so they forget the color words, at least what few words they knew to begin with.  (Remember that this is 1977.  The researcher is more or less assuming that wives buy their husbands’ shirts for them.)  Rich also finds that the nuns used fewer fancy words than did the other women but still more than the men did, possibly because (and here’s my interpretation) they don’t shop for clothes now but maybe they used to know more color words when they were younger, so they’re still better off than the men.  The women’s groups other than nuns scored, on average, from 64 to 66, the nuns scored 60, younger men scored 56, and older men 47.  Over half of the non-nun women used either Fancy or Qualified Fancy responses, but only six of the 25 responses from older men fit these categories.  

There are obvious problems with this research, everything from the scenario itself to the interpretation of results to the low number of subjects to how most, if not all, of the subjects are highly-educated.  But despite its shortcomings, I like research like this.  It’s simple, it’s fun, and you can do it yourself.  So let’s get out our old box of crayons and start doing some linguistics! 

Rich, Elaine. “Sex-Related Differences in Colour Vocabulary.” Language and Speech, 1977. Vol. 20. Pages 404-409.