“The Canary in the Coal Mine”

Here’s the latest in political rhetoric. I’ll quote The Washington Post online, Wednesday, November 8 at 9:54 p.m., with the byline of Robert Costa and Philip Rucker:

“’Canary in the coal mine’: Republicans fear Democratic wins mean more losses to come”

I’d first heard the expression the day before, on Tuesday, when MSNBC’s Chuck Todd used it twice on his afternoon show MTP Daily. I heard it Wednesday too, on the same show, and politicians themselves are using it. I hadn’t heard it Monday though, either because the canary hadn’t started coughing yet or because MTP Daily had a guest host. (Katy Tur was “in for Chuck Todd.” I love this newsy language.) “The canary in the coal mine” seems to be perfectly normal political discourse these days. So what does it mean?

As it turns out, it makes perfect sense if you know something about the history of mining. (And who doesn’t?) Apparently until just a few years ago – the mid-1980s in England, I read somewhere – when coal miners were worried about noxious gases in the mines, they’d go down into a new seam with a caged canary because canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide. If the bird was happily singing away, the mine was safe. If the bird was gasping for air, or just dead, they had a problem. I don’t really know to what extent they tried CPR on the gassed-out birds, not that it would have mattered; I suppose if they saved their lives, the birds probably just got taken back down into the mines again so they could have more coughing fits. The point is, the birds served as a kind of early warning system for the miners, an alert to a dangerous situation that was just on the horizon. Presumably some animal rights activists pointed out that miners could use electronic equipment just as well as canaries without endangering innocent lives, but that’s beyond the scope of the present research. You’ll have to look that up for yourselves.

It seems that the expression has been around for a few years in politics, but television will help it stick around in the popular vernacular a little better. I found an article in The Wall Street Journal online edition from March 14, 2014 by Ben Zimmer that quotes Fed Governor Frederic Mishkin from 2008, just before the financial collapse, as saying this about inflation: “I tend to look at financial markets as being the canary in the coal mine.” That is to say, the markets were an early indicator of inflation. But nothing that came before will compare with the usage that this expression will get now.

The reason is that we just had elections last Tuesday, and Republicans lost gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and multitudes of other elections all across the country. This is an off-year election, one with very few races, but pundits are theorizing that these losses might be an early indicator of the Democratic “wave” to come in the 2018 midterms next November. Is this a repudiation of Trumpism? Are the Democrats poised to regain control of the House and, against all odds, the Senate? Will the Trump agenda be blocked permanently?

Only the canary knows for sure.


Literary Giants

Iowa is my home. The word means “the bountiful land” and it lies between two rivers. It’s also the state between Missouri and Minnesota. Missouri is to our south, and in literary circles, it’s famous for Mark Twain. Minnesota produced Sinclair Lewis, one of the best of the early twentieth century novelists. And then there’s Iowa. I’ve always felt like Iowa just doesn’t live up somehow. We’re in a literary sandwich.

Here’s a sample from Twain’s 1872 nonfiction work entitled Roughing It. I’m quoting from Chapter 16 of the Book-of-the-Month Club edition (New York, 1992, page 422). The author is describing the miners of the California gold rush after several years had gone by:

It was a driving, vigorous, restless population in those days. It was a curious population. It was the only population of the kind that the world has ever seen gathered together, and it is not likely that the world will ever see its like again. For, observe, it was an assemblage of two hundred thousand young men – not simpering, dainty, kid-gloved weaklings, but stalwart, muscular, dauntless young braves, brimful of push and energy, and royally endowed with every attribute that goes to make up a peerless and magnificent manhood – the very pick and choice of the world’s glorious ones. No women, no children, no gray and stooping veterans – none but erect, bright-eyed, quick moving, strong-handed young giants – the strangest population, the finest population, the most gallant host that ever trooped down the startled solitudes of an unpeopled land. And where are they now? Scattered to the ends of the earth – or prematurely aged and decrepit – or shot or stabbed in street affrays – or dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts – all gone, or nearly all – victims devoted upon the altar of the golden calf – the noblest holocaust that ever wafted its sacrificial incense heavenward. It is pitiful to think upon.

And then there’s Lewis, the man from Minnesota who was attacked for having “no style” among other inadequacies, quite possibly because he said things that upset people. Let’s look at two paragraphs from Babbitt (1922), quoted here from the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition (New York, 1950, page 128). Lewis is describing the life that George Babbitt leads, that of a man on the move, in Chapter 12:

“As he approached the office he walked faster and faster, muttering, “Guess better hustle.” All about him the city was hustling, for hustling’s sake. Men in motors were hustling to pass one another in the hustling traffic. Men were hustling to catch trollies, with another trolley a minute behind, and to leap from the trolleys, to gallop across the sidewalk, to hurl themselves into buildings, into hustling express elevators. Men in dairy lunches were hustling to gulp down the food which cooks had hustled to fry. Men in barber shops were snapping, ‘Jus’ shave me once over. Gotta hustle.’ Men were feverishly getting rid of visitors in offices adorned with the signs, ‘This Is My Busy Day’ and ‘The Lord Created the World in Six Days – You Can Spiel All You Got to Say in Six Minutes.’ Men who had made five thousand, year before last, and ten thousand last year, were urging on nerve-yelping bodies and parched brains so that they might make twenty thousand this year; and the men who had broken down immediately after making their twenty thousand dollars were hustling to catch trains, to hustle through the vacations which the hustling doctors had ordered.

“Among them Babbitt hustled back to his office, to sit down with nothing much to do except see that the staff looked as though they were hustling.”

So here I am in Iowa, and for whatever reason, we just don’t turn out the literary giants. I can’t think of even one really great writer from Iowa. I’ll keep looking though, and if I find one, you’ll read about it in this column.

Tidbits #3: Words!

Here are some more unrelated observations from the past few months.

Meteorologists are at it again. They talk about “severe” weather a lot – and there’s a specific definition for what that means – but now they’re making a distinction between “breezy” weather and “windy” conditions. I suppose breezy is less windy?… Wordsmith.org comes out with words that may or may not be in general usage. Here’s one of their latest: “wegotism.” They cite an example from Evans (2011): “Dennis’s wegotism became ridiculous when he said, ‘We don’t like people stepping on our toes.’” In other words, a wegotist is someone who uses “we” instead of “I” to excess. The website claims the usage dates to 1797, but I have doubts…. Politicians talk about how they “pivot” in interviews – how they change the subject to what they want to talk about. Senator Al Franken gives an example on page 94 of his latest book: “For example, say a reporter asked me, ‘In the latest polls, you trail Norm Coleman by twenty points. How can you get DFLers [Minnesota Democrats] to support you for the endorsement if you’re so far behind?’” Franken responded by pivoting: “When I go around our state, Minnesotans don’t talk about polls. They talk about their kids’ education, and how they’re worried that they’ll go bankrupt if someone in their family gets sick.” That’s a great politician at work…. Sometimes it’s hard to get the words right. I’m trying to learn to play a piano, and on my little roll-up piano from the Aufitker company, the box says, “16-stage volume adjustable.” That sounds odd, but I get the point. Then I read some of the instructions. “The fingering in detail of the momodactylism fingering please refer to the accessory four.” There’s no accessory four that I can find. Momo what?... And then sometimes the words aren’t enough. You need to be emphatic when you write these days. “Technical Support! I’m here to help you!” the sign says on the office door. Computers do this all the time; my columns get “Posted!” quite emphatically. Golf season is over in Iowa, but I hate to recycle the annual newsletter from months ago because it says, “Think Spring!! As we finalize this year’s newsletter, we have 60 degree temps and golfers in February!! Time to think about golf!! We are looking forward to seeing you all again and to getting the season started!” I guess different people have different ideas about what constitutes good writing. I’ll write a little about that next time.

As a postscript, I now have a new keyboard, one with real keys and everything, so I’m learning to read music for the first time, hit the keys that correspond with the notes, and all that. Wish me luck!!

Evans, Rod L. Thingamajigs and Whachamacallits. New York: Perigee, 2011. (Cited in wordsmith.org)

Franken, Al. Al Franken: Giant of the Senate. New York: Twelve/Grand Central Publishing, 2017.


Katy Tur is a reporter for NBC and MSNBC News. She has a new book out about her experiences covering the Trump campaign entitled Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History (New York: HarperCollins, 2017). As the only reporter who covered the campaign from start to finish over about a year and a half, she has a perspective on the campaign and Donald Trump himself that no one else can give. It’s a great read if you want to know about how politics and the new media work these days. I highly recommend it.

Tur is a young reporter, about 34 – she put her own birthdate in the book – so naturally you’d expect a younger writing style than you’d get from someone like Hillary Clinton, whose book came out the same day as hers. She does the usual things that everyone else does now, like writing about situations that older people won’t touch (use your imagination), and there’s more profanity than I’ll probably read in Bob Schieffer’s new book. But beyond that, I notice that the language has shifted somewhat to a style that’s less bound by the old rules for writing that we learned in school, and the new style creates a sense of immediacy that you really don’t get from older writers. Even though I’m twenty years older than she is, I like the style because it makes me feel like I’m right there on the campaign trail with her. I’ll give a couple of quotes from the book here to show what I mean.

On election night, when it became apparent that Trump was not just making a good showing but was actually going to win the presidency, Tur turns to her producer (p. 262) and says, “He’s going to win. Anthony, he’s going to win. He. Is. Going. To. Win. The one-word sentences really drive the point home in a way that normal syntax wouldn’t. She also uses repetition to get her points across throughout the book, as in this quote (p. 25) from when she is interviewing the candidate: “He brags about his income and says he will release his financials. He calls the press dishonest. He says he’ll win the Latino vote, ‘because I’m gonna create jobs.’ He rants about China stealing jobs. He praises Fox News for talking about immigration ‘bigly’ (or ‘big league,’ it’s hard to tell which).” This type of listing highlights the feeling that Trump is offering us such a blizzard of talk that it’s hard to keep track of it, that it’s all too much. Other writers use repetition too – even to excess. (Try Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.) But sometimes I wonder if those writers are using repetition more because it’s easy to write that way than because they’re trying to emphasize a point. Tur is much better than that.

This book isn’t a particularly enjoyable read because of the content involved. It’s about the reporter’s life on the campaign trail, and that life involved death threats and personal struggles. Nonetheless, I’d highly recommend Unbelievable to anyone who wants to get inside the mind of a young political reporter who has a unique story to tell.

It’s Hard Being a Teacher

“Discover unplugged teaching strategies for flipped courses” the subject line said the other day when I checked my e-mail at work, so I opened the message. It was from an outfit called Magna Online Seminars, and for a mere $297 I could have sat in my office and listened to Dr. Barbi Honeycutt, “an expert in the flip,” talk about, well, unplugging and flipping. They’re talking about the flipped model of education, which is described thusly: “The flipped model continues to gain popularity as instructors embrace a role change in the classroom, transitioning from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side.'” What they mean is that teachers like me who’ve lived maybe thirty years longer than any of their students are supposed to give them activities to do and not tell them too much – this despite the fact that I might possibly have learned something in that extra thirty years of life, and that the students, at least a few of them, might want to know about it. The e-mail message continues: “By doing so [flipping], you’re giving students the space to engage in activities, experiment with concepts, and focus on higher-level learning.” Sounds like a science experiment to me. We did those in the 70s, but we still had lectures too. Oh well. It’s the latest. Education is trendy.

As for unplugging, apparently flipping often requires the use of technology quite a lot, and as the message says, “This can be challenging.” So in this seminar, I could have done all of the following:

“Discover a range of ‘unplugged’ teaching strategies used to engage students”

“Learn to identify opportunities for unplugging devices and creating a tech-free learning experience in the classroom”

“Master simple ways to integrate unplugged flipped methods into your course”

“Understand the benefits to including unplugged teaching and learning strategies in flipped course design”

Unfortunately, I missed this opportunity, the deadline having passed, so I’ll never know how I should get rid of all these computerized lessons that educators over the last fifteen years have been telling me I should use. Lucky for me I never used that many of them in the first place. Even so, maybe there’s something to all of this. Eric Clapton unplugged his guitar and did an MTV special about twenty years ago with only acoustic instruments, and it was very good. But I digress.

I’m still happy though, because just the next day I got another offer from the same company, and this subject line said: “Bridging the divide between you and your students.” Here’s the problem they’ve identified: “Rigor. It’s all the buzz in the academic world. And you’ve probably noticed at least a slight misalignment between the way you and your students define it.” Yeah. I know I have. But for only $247, I can understand more about “how to communicate [my] definition of academic rigor” and I can “have conversations with students about rigor and ensure their voices are heard.” I’m sure the students will be eager to talk about this.

But if I talk about rigor very much, there won’t be as much time to do my unplugged flipped activities, and then students might not be properly engaged during class time. I’m just at a loss what to do.

Maybe somebody has a seminar to help teachers like me?


All language is situational. By that I mean we say different things in different contexts. You might call a man named William “Bill” or “Will” in some situations, but you wouldn’t introduce him that way to a large audience full of people dressed in tuxedos and formal gowns. John might be “Johnny” or “Jack” to friends and family, and Samantha might be “Sam” in certain contexts too, and she’d choose when it was acceptable and when not. I once had a student from Japan named Gishin who told me to call him “Isao” because that’s what he liked, and that’s what the other students called him too. Or maybe his real name was Isao. Anyway, the nickname made sense in Japanese, and he liked it. I suppose that one’s like how we get “Dick” out of Richard. There’s not an obvious connection there.

Plus, while we’re on the subject, nicknames are sometimes more than just standardized short forms of names. We can have nicknames for people we love; just use your imagination to think of a few of these. Sports figures quite often have nicknames – remember Babe Ruth (“The Sultan of Swat”), Ted Williams (“The Splendid Splinter”) or Julius Erving (“Dr. J”). Auto racing has some of the most colorful of these – how about Bill Elliott (“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville”) or Tom “the Mongoose” McEwan. All of these sports nicknames are very positive; they’re a kind of honor bestowed upon an athlete. Nicknames can even be done as harmless jokes too; Chris Berman of ESPN was famous for his offbeat nicknames (Wally “Absorbine” Joyner). Bob Costas once read a promotion for NBC’s upcoming drama about Fyodor Dostoevsky and then remarked that if this author had ever been a baseball player, he would have been called “Dusty.” One of David Letterman’s guests on his early shows was Larry “Bud” Melman. Nicknames are fun, and they’re usually harmless.

There are angry nicknames too though, and they’re typically used in specific situations. Adolescents get angry and call people names at school. We label whole groups of people with ethnic slurs – not nicknames really – but these are especially useful if we’re fighting them in a war and we need to dehumanize them. (It’s easier to kill people if they’re less human than we are.) And then there are political nicknames. We’ve come a long way since President Ronald Reagan was “The Great Communicator” – a reference to his speechmaking talent, similar to an athlete’s skill. In his campaign, Donald Trump used terms like “Crooked Hillary” for Secretary Clinton and “Lyin’ Ted” for Senator Cruz, and this raised eyebrows but was generally tolerated. “People say things in campaigns,” I heard any number of commentators say at the time. But just a few days ago, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump referred to the North Korean president as “Rocket Man” in a formal speech in front of many of the world’s most distinguished diplomats, and now several commentators have complained that this usage was wrong. (I wonder what Elton John thinks of it?) The commentators don’t think much of Kim Jong-un either, but they’re against using a derisive nickname in this public forum. It’s like calling Elizabeth “Lizzie” at a society ball. It just isn’t done.

So where will all of this lead us in the future? True, language is situational, but language changes as time goes by. Maybe our culture is becoming so crude that in a few years any nickname will be acceptable at any time. Personally, I hope that day never comes.

Where the Wild Ones Rove

Here’s something I read at work the other day:

“John and Sherry lived near the Georgia shore, where they raised ginger and shipped it to Jordan. John would shovel the ginger into shipping crates, and Sherry would jerk them shut. John enjoyed the job, but to Sherry it was a joke, so she jumped ship and shuffled off with a shoe salesman from Jersey.”

I wish Sherry well with her new life.

This passage is from page 108 of a pronunciation skills book entitled Exercises in American English Pronunciation (Salt Lake City: Excellence in Education, 1986). I teach English as a Second Language, and in my business, we’re always trying to get students to speak more clearly. This book is designed to give students practice in hearing different sounds and pronouncing them; in this passage, it’s the [sh] and [j] sounds. Naturally, this type of instruction doesn’t really work, but sometimes it can break up a lesson that might otherwise be pretty dull. There are short little paragraphs like this one, and there are dialogs too, and also what teachers call “minimal pairs” – two words that have only one sound that’s different, like “rent” and “lent.”

Many times the dialogs are the most fun. Here’s one from page 139 which focuses on the [v] and [w] sounds. Valarie and Walt are having a serious discussion:

V: Hi, Walt. What school do you go to?

W: I go to the “Y.” It’s in the West.

V: Wow! I grew up in Vancouver in the West.

W: It’s very wet there, isn’t it?

V: Yes. That’s why we moved to Wisconsin.

W: Well, I’ve always wanted to visit Wisconsin. What’s it like?

V: It’s wonderful. There’s a lot of vegetation because there’s so much water.

W: That’s very different from Wyoming, where I grew up.

V: Sounds like you have done a lot of roving in your life.

W: Well, I guess we have. My dad is a vet, and he works on cows and wild doves.

V: Very diversified!

W: Yes, but we must wander where the wild ones rove.

One more: This one is for practicing vowel sounds like [o] and [a].

“Traveling down the road, Tom wanted to stop to soak his feet in some hot water. While soaking his feet, he dozed off. While dozing, he was robbed of his coat. When he awoke, he looked around, but all he saw was a goat on the road next to an oak tree. When Tom got close to the goat, he saw a note which had been in his coat. The goat had eaten his coat! Poor Tom just moped all the way home.” (p. 44)

Okay, on second thought, maybe I’ll just use the time to have conversations with my students. But thanks to Michael Sudlow for writing such snappy prose!


Sometimes there’s too much language in the world, if you know what I mean.

I have a cold, so I’m staying home from work because 1) my voice is terrible, and I’d scare my students if I showed up for class, and 2) I might infect someone. My head hurts a little too, but I had just started trying to balance my checking account when the phone rang. I answered. That was mistake number one. The caller was a man with an Indian accent (retroflex [t] sounds – it’s like Apu on the Simpsons, if you’ve seen that show), but that wasn’t unusual. (Aren’t all phone callers from India nowadays?) He said he was from Dish Network and had some upgrades to do to my satellite dish, and he asked me to turn on the TV and the satellite, hit the Menu button twice, and give him the model number and receiver number of my dish. I did that. Mistake number two. He asked for my four-digit security code, just like Dish always wants to know nowadays. I said I didn’t know it, but then he said it was probably the same as the last four digits of “my social” – meaning my Social Security number. I told him the four digits, and he said that was right, that he now had access to my account. Mistake number three. Then he said nice things about me and promised to give me ten dollars off my bill for six months. I’m getting suspicious. Then he transferred me to someone else, another guy from India, and he wanted a credit or debit card number because Dish needed to charge me $150 as a deposit, which I’d get back in six months, and I told them that they should just put it on my bill, but he said he needed “collateral,” and then I told him I wasn’t interested and hung up.

All right, I’m an idiot. So I called Dish Network and they forwarded my call to the fraud department because they never make calls like this one, and Dish canceled my online account, changed my four-digit security code, and gave me the phone numbers of three credit fraud agencies that I should call. I got through to two of them – “Transunion” and “Experia” are the names I heard on the phone (I don’t know the spellings), and on one of them I waited and waited through a long spiel about how for only $19.95 a month I could have all sorts of protection that I’ll never understand, and the menus were tough to navigate, but I got an “alert” placed on my credit card account (I only have one), and Experia said they were forwarding this alert to both Transunion and the other one, “Equafax,” whose phone menu wasn’t working. Then I went out to get some Kleenexes and cough drops, and while I was out I stopped by my bank to tell them what had happened. The woman at the first desk greeted me and asked for my ID, and then she said she’d put some notice on my bank account that would require anyone calling to give more information about the account than what’s usual, like when was the last transaction or something. By this time I was pretty much in a daze, so I said thank you – at least I hope I said thank you – she gave me back my driver’s license and looked at me like I’d just gotten out of bed or something, which I kind of had. So now I’m home, my TV still works, and my head hurts even more than it would have if I’d just gone to work in the first place. Teaching is easier than dealing with this.

It’s like, this is just too much language for me to process when my head hurts. It’s too much of a giant information dump. But even so, I can’t complain. My checkbook is balanced now, I learned about ninety-day fraud alerts, and these cherry-flavored cough drops are great! I think I’ll have another.

Millennium Days

Here’s an advertisement from a small town Iowa newspaper, The Ogden Reporter:

“JANUARY UNLOADING SALE. We must and will be untrammeled as each succeeding season comes round to stock up entirely new. Everything must move in its respective season. This involves a total sacrifice of profit, of course, and in many instances part of the cost. But it pays to keep stocks new and fresh. We count the money thus lost a good advertising investment. [New paragraph] True to this policy, we announce our JANUARY SALE of every stitch and every item of fall and winter merchandise in our store. This is an opportunity that no thrifty person can afford to let go by default, as it embraces everything in stock, to-wit: All that remains of the KUPPENHEIMER Fall and Winter High-grade Clothing and standard goods in other departments. Below find a partial price-list.”

There’s no price list, and don’t bother trying to take advantage of this offer. This ad appeared in the Thursday, January 4, 1900 edition of the paper. The man who guaranteed “10 per cent off on all Winter Goods, one “Chas. Wrede,” probably hasn’t been running the business for at least 100 years. Even so, I have to admit that Chas. had a good writer. I almost didn’t have enough patience to read through all that before I figured out what he was selling.

This newspaper is from Ogden, Iowa – the town where I graduated from high school. It’s got all the news in its twelve pages, and not just local gossip either. It’s got “Diamonds are formed in nature at an enormous temperature and under immense pressure.” And “Women employed on Japanese tea farms work twelve hours and are paid 15 cents a day.” And a sage observation from someone named Corneille: “The man who pardons easily courts injury.” The Boer War is in there, and so are two chapters of a serialized novel, and also this statement on page four, accompanied by a picture of the American flag: “For President in 1900 Wm. McKINLEY. We follow, all of us, one flag. It symbolizes our purposes and our aspirations; it represents what we believe and what we mean to maintain, and wherever it floats it is the flag of the free and the hope of the oppressed, and wherever and whenever it is assailed at any sacrifice it will be carried to a triumphant peace.”

Old newspapers are a window into the culture of the time. Here’s another item for you to contemplate: “Still Faster to Denver. ’The Colorado Special’ over the Northwestern leaving Chicago at 10:00 a.m. daily, arrives Denver 2:30 p.m. the afternoon of the following day, twenty-five minutes earlier than the schedule in effect previous to the 12th inst. ‘The Chicago Special’ leaves Denver at 3 p.m., one hour and twenty minutes later than the schedule effective prior to November 12th, arriving at Chicago at 8:15 p.m. the following day, as heretofore. The night train out of Denver leaves there at eleven o’clock, one hour later than the schedule in effect before November 12th, and arrives at Chicago at 7:45 the second morning, as previously. No change in the time of ‘The Pacific Express,’ which continues to leave Chicago at 10:30 p.m., arriving at Denver at 7:35 the second morning.”

Okay. Got it. And just one more thing: “Wireless telegraphy and horseless carriages, it is announced, will soon be cast in the shade by the practical application of inkless printing. When the inventors succeed in devising a plan of foodless eating the world will indeed seem like millennium days to the man who cannot pay the price the restaurants demand.”