Friday, January 29, 2016

Am I Too Young to Carry a Handkerchief?

Maybe it's because I'm getting older. Maybe it's because I moved to a warm weather climate. Maybe it's because I'm turning into my father.

Whatever it is, I bought a handkerchief. I bought a whole pack of them, in fact. I did it so I could mop my brow in the Florida heat.

Another sign I'm turning into my father: I just said "mop my brow" without feeling like an old-timey English teacher.

I don't like the word "mop." It sounds gross, like an actual mop. The word just sort of flops there, like a moist, dirty jellyfish. So to say "mop my brow" just gives me an icky feeling all over.

I also hate the word "moist" for the same reason. The phrase "mop your moist brow" may make me throw up. And then we'll need a real mop.

I decided I had reached an age where I needed a new solution for forehead sweat. I'm no longer a college kid who can just wear a baseball hat. Once you hit your 30s, you need to stop wearing a baseball hat during normal work hours. Also, once you graduate college, you have to stop wearing them backward.

Which means I had to start carrying handkerchiefs.

The most important question to answer was whether it was pronounced "hanker-CHEEF" or "hanker-CHIFF." And whether the 'd' was silent. (It is. It always is.) My dad pronounces it hanker-CHEEF, so I decided to follow suit.

I called it a "hankie" once, but my kids laughed at me, so I quit. I'm already self-conscious enough about carrying them, I didn't want to make it worse. I mean, I'm reaching the age where men can just be dorky with a minimal effort.

Last week, I had a nightmare that I was wearing dark socks and sandals.

But I've realized that handkerchiefs are very useful, and wonder why I didn't start carrying one sooner. That's apparently another thing that happens as we get older. Men start carrying more useful things, and wonder why we never did before.

My father-in-law typically carries a pocket knife, two lighters, a key pouch with a small pair of nail clippers, and about three dollars in loose change. That's in addition to his wallet, a small notebook, and two pens in his shirt pocket. And that's just for going around town. When he flies, he carries so much stuff, he has to gate check his sport coat.

This isn't a big deal for women. They've been carrying stuff in their purse from the time they were little girls. But for boys and young men, it's not cool to carry stuff. Once you hit a certain age, you stop being cool, and it's open season on looking like a dork in front of your kids.

I'm still clinging to my coolness by hiding my handkerchief in my pocket.

However, once you start carrying a handkerchief, you realize they're very useful. Like a towel from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, except smaller, thinner, and less absorbent. Also, you can't flick your friends in the ass with a twirled up handkerchief.

Over the last few months, I've used mine to mo — wipe my forehead, clean my glasses, clean my computer screen, and even wipe my mouth when I lost my napkin. Of course, it goes in the laundry at the end of the day, because I don't want to carry a sweat-stink hanky with hamburger juice on it.

The one thing I have vowed never to do, however, is blow my nose in it. Handkerchiefs are not for nasal hygiene. Sadly, you see it in public, like at church. A man will pull a wadded-up cotton square out of his pocket, search it for a clean spot, jam it on his nose as if he's trying to screw on a bottle cap, and then honk hard enough to give himself an aneurysm.

He then inspects the contents carefully, to make sure he's cleared out the offending snotwad, as well as the part of his brain that controls appropriate public behavior, and he sticks it back in his pocket!

And that's the worst part of a handkerchief. A man can blow a golf ball-sized booger out of his head, and he'll carry it with him for the rest of the day.

Lord save me from becoming one of those men who saves his snot. Let me just wipe it on the pew in front of me, like I did when I was six.

Photo credit: UK Imperial War Museum (Public Domain)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, January 22, 2016

In Praise of the Singular They

You know that wonderful feeling you get, when you learn something you've been told was "wrong, was later determined to be right after all?

Like learning "don't end your sentences with a preposition" was a nonsensical, unnecessary rule created by a Latin scholar in 1762 because he wanted English to be like Latin.

Like reading on Web MD that nothing will actually freeze your face that way.

Like finally being old enough to win an argument with your parents.

That's how I felt this past week, when I learned that top language experts support the "singular they."

"What kind of language experts?"

Top. Language Experts.

Singular "they" is the word you'd use if you don't know the sex of a person in a hypothetical situation.

"I don't know who keeps stealing my cupcakes, but they better hope I don't find them."

Singular they is a great replacement for "he or she" and "his or her," which are a linguistic nightmare for anyone who likes brevity.

Because nothing is as gross and disgusting as having to write sentences like, "If anyone wants his or her parking pass, he or she needs to come to the HR office, so he or she can register his or her car."

I've had to contend with this whole "he or she" nonsense since grad school in the early 90s, and I was always looking for a way around it. I'm not saying we should go back to the days of the generic "he," which was sexist and exclusionary. I just think we need something that's not as awkwardly formal as my junior prom.

"S/he" is even worse. That one was devised by a demon-possessed robot. Whoever came up with "s/he" needs to hang his or her head in shame — it's the participation trophy of the English language. I'm proud to say I've never, ever written "s/he" except to make fun of it and the people who use it.

Even in the early 90s, I was lobbying for singular they, but to a language tone-deaf crowd who saw nothing wrong with an overwritten, clunky "he or she." Of course, these were all academics, so overwritten and clunky was their stock in trade.

These were people who thought that if 10 words was good, 30 words was better. If one syllable was acceptable, four syllables were better. These people could turn a stop sign into a 30 word declaration, after spending six weeks writing a mission statement about a two week project.

Needless to say — but I'm a former academic, which means I'm going to say it anyway — my professors preferred "he or she," and were annoyed when I refused to use it. When I made a strong case for singular they, I was told it was grammatically incorrect because it referred to more than one person, while "he or she" was singular.

They got more annoyed when I pointed out how they used it in normal conversation.

So you can imagine my joy this past December, when the Washington Post admitted the singular they into their style guide when referring to transgender people, and to avoid awkward sentences, like "If anyone wants to register his or her disappointment with the Post's decision, he or she can write a strongly worded letter, if it will make him or her feel good about himself or herself."

It got even better a few weeks ago, when hundreds of linguists gathered at the American Dialect Society annual meeting, and voted to make singular they the 2015 Word Of The Year.

It may not be the Académie française, the French academy that determines the official French language, but the American Dialect Society is made up of professionals and academics who study the English language, and how it's changing and developing. And they don't give a rip about what Mrs. Fischgesicht told you in the seventh grade.

It sounds like the singular they is here to stay. Sure, there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, especially by those holdouts whose blood boiled earlier when I said the "no prepositions" rule was wrong.

So if anyone has a problem with this change, he or she should log on to his or her Facebook page and express his or her opinion, as loudly as he or she can, to his or her friends. Then he or she can engage in a vigorous debate and explain his or her reasons for why he or she continues to hold on to his or her beliefs.

Trust me, they'll feel a lot better.

Hat tip to Grammar Girl for the podcast episode that alerted me to the Washington Post and American Dialect Society's decisions, and inspired this column!

Photo credit: A 10" x 14" engraving from the original painting by L.E. Pine in possession of Rev. Robert Lowth, M.A. dated 1809 as published in a special edition of "Dr. Johnson: His Friends and His Critics" by George Birkbeck Hill Wikipedia (Public Domain, PD-US)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, January 15, 2016

That Time I Tried to Cancel My Cable

"Hi. My name is Erik Deckers and I—"

"Thank you. How are you?"

"Great, I just wanted to—"

"Erik Deckers."


"No, E-R-S."

"Yes, with the 'S' at the end. So I just wanted to can—"

"No problem, I watched a whole episode of Elementary while I waited."

"Great, so I wanted to get some help with—"

"You've already got my account number."

"Then why did I enter it when I called in?"

"Verify what, exactly? It's not like someone wrestled the phone away from me while I was waiting. For 45 minutes."

"Fine, it's A2C-4EF-789."

"No, nine. One more than eight. You know, the German word for 'no?'"

"That's Dutch."

"Yes, I'm sure. Look, I just want to cancel my cable."

"No, the service is fine. We were happy with the service. I just don't need 300 home shopping channels."

"I know you don't. I was exaggerating for effect."

"Yes, I know how many channels I actually get. I don't need them all."

"I know all about those. I don't like them."

"I don't even watch one news channel, why would I need 12?"

"I don't think I've ever watched the Game Show Network in my entire life."

"No, that won't help."

"Because I don't need three free months of the sports package."

"Yes, but last time I had the sports package, all the baseball and football games were blacked out on the regional channels, which defeated the purpose of the sports package. Then, when the channels weren't blacked out, they all showed the same exact program at the same time. Every channel was showing the same poker tournament."

"Who needs 17 sports channels all showing a bunch of fat guys playing cards? If I wanted that, I'd hang out at the American Legion."

"I understand Major League Baseball doesn't call you about programming decisions. I'm not saying they should—"

"I don't care if they're high def! Poker isn't a game, and watching the semi-finals of the National Poker Championships on the Big Sky Sports Network doesn't interest me!"

"What kind of discount?"

"That's not much of a discount."

"No, I understand what you meant. I'm saying $10 per month isn't much of a discount."

"Well, my cable bill is nearly $100 per month. You're only offering 10%. I can switch to the other guys, and their cable package is half as much."

"Okay, cable and Internet. That doesn't really matter. The point is, I'm paying $100 per month for data to get into my house, and I don't need the cable."

"Let's see, we watch network TV, the kids watch YouTube on their cell phones, and my wife and I watch Netflix and Hulu on our tablets."

"We're just trimming the fat on our expenses. We realized we don't watch as much TV as we used to, and the stuff we do watch is available on Hulu. Or if we really want it, we can buy an episode on iTunes for two or three bucks. I can get a whole season of Elementary for $40. If I cancel our cable, I can buy seasons of two of our favorite shows on iTunes with one month's cable bill, and catch the rest on Hulu."

"Adding a phone line isn't an option."

"Because we don't need a landline. We haven't had a landline for 12 years."

"That's not even less than $100, that's 30 percent more. We're trying to cut costs, not increase them."

"Who needs it? I can use my cell phone in an emergency. I also use Skype and Facetime for video calls. Can your landline do that?"

"What about you? Do you have a landline?"

"Seriously? Who calls it?"

"So if no one but your mother and telemarketers calls your landline, why even have one?"

"Can't your mother call you on your cell phone?"

"Change it in her phone. Then she can just speed dial you whenever she wants."

"Of course you get a great discount on your landline. You work for a company whose dying mission is to sell telephone service, but you don't actually use it. So you're spending, what, $360 a year? Just so you can talk to your mother once a month? For that much money, you could buy your mom an iPad and teach her how to use Facetime."

"You're welcome. Now about my cable bill?"

"Look, it's not you, it's me. I just want to see other programs. And you don't offer those without me nearly doubling my costs."

"Don't cry. There's some other customer out there for you. You'll see."

"Wait, really? When does the new Game of Thrones season start?"

Photo credit: Seattle Municipal Archives (Wikipedia, Creative Commons)

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, January 08, 2016

The Virgin Mary in a Cheese Sandwich

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2005.

It seems cheese sandwiches have been in the news a lot during the last few months, but not always in a good way.

In November 2004, online casino paid $28,000 on eBay for a 10-year-old partially-eaten cheese sandwich that bore the image of the Virgin Mary.

I saw pictures of the Virgin Mary Cheese Sandwich on their website, and while I agree there was a face on the sandwich, I don't necessarily believe it's the Virgin Mary. For one thing, I've never actually seen the Virgin Mary, so I can't actually be sure. But I've seen Stevie Nicks, and I think it looks more like her.

But Diana Duyser swears that for 10 years, the Velveeta vestal virgin has brought her enormous good fortune, including winning $70,000 at her local casino. She kept it on her nightstand in a plastic container. announced they will take the sandwich on a national tour and sell Virgin Mary Cheese Sandwich t-shirts to help raise money for various charities. Maybe I'm just being cynical, but I can't help thinking that all this national attention will attract new gamblers along with it.

So while I applaud their efforts and sentiments, am I the only one who thinks it's odd that a gambling house has purchased a food item with the Holy Blessed Mother on it? Far be it from me to point fingers, but when a casino uses the mother of the Messiah to help attract new gamblers, I start looking for lightning.

All in all, it's a good cheese sandwich, at least in the "it won't get you tased" way.

On the other hand, convicted murderer Douglas Eugene Wilson got one of the bad kinds.

According to January 2005 Associated Press story, while Wilson was awaiting trial on murder charges, he was passing out cheese sandwiches to fellow inmates while he was in jail. A sheriff's deputy warned him not to do this, because it violated jail rules. When Wilson ignored the deputy, he was tased. He then reportedly charged the deputy and was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.

Deputy: Hey, no distributing cheese sandwiches in jail!

Wilson: Why? It's just a cheese sandwich.

Deputy: I'm not going to warn you again. Drop the cheese sandwich and slowly step away.

Wilson: But it's not going to—


Wilson was later convicted of murdering Lisa Chavez, and was sentenced to life in prison. In other words, he can't get out. Ever.

So it seemed a little unnecessary to then convict him of possession of contraband, and sentence him to three more years in prison. He did plead guilty to the lesser charge of possession of contraband in order to get the charges of second-degree assault and attempted second-degree assault dropped from charging the deputies, and then presumably trying to strike the deputy as his arms and legs were flailing from the shock.

I realize Wilson probably hopes he might someday get out of prison. But I would think there would be a point where you just need to give up and realize that life in prison means just that. Why would you even negotiate to remove charges? When you're going to spend the rest of your natural days in prison, what's another six years or so?

Judge: You are hereby sentenced to three additional years in prison.

Wilson: But I'm already in for life.

Judge: Oh. . .well, now you're going to a dirty prison filled with criminals.

Wilson: But I'm already—


Contraband refers to things that should not be allowed in jail, like drugs, pornography, weapons, and cell phones. But I didn't know cheese sandwiches could be dangerous. Why else would they have needed stun guns to stop Wilson from passing them out?

"Nobody move! I've got a Cheddar and mayo on whole wheat, and I'm not afraid to use it!"

"Do what he says! That's got the Virgin Mary on it!"

Hopefully word of these new weapons won't reach the criminal element, or else we'll have bigger problems. Bank robbers will carry roast beef and mustard on a kaiser roll. You'll need a license and background check to be able to order lunch at your favorite Subway. And gun-toting Texans will soon replace their six-shooters with Reuben sandwiches.

Not to worry though. The police will keep us safe from all sandwich-brandishing evil-doers, because they're well-trained and dedicated to preventing crime and helping people.

And they've been arming themselves with bratwursts and Kielbasas to help keep the peace.

You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.

Friday, January 01, 2016

So, This Year's Banned Words List is Problematic

So, every year, I look forward to Lake Superior State University's List of Words Banished from the Queen's English for Mis-use, Over-use, and General Uselessness. But this year is not as emotionally satisfying as past lists.

It has some words that should have been banned years ago, and others that I just don't care about. So I don't feel as emotionally connected to the 41st annual list.

"So" made the list this year, although it's actually the second go-around for the offending utterance. In 1999, it made the list for things like "I am SO tired of you people." And now it's back again for being used at the beginning of sentences. Sort of like I did twice in the first two paragraphs.

I can't figure out when this became a problem. Either I've never really noticed it, or I've been doing it for such a long time, I'm used to it. So, I was pretty surprised when I learned this was a problem for a lot of people. But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop it. Some people think starting a sentence with "but" and "and" is a terrible thing. But I've done that several times already. And I'm not going to quit that either.

So there.

We could have a conversation about it, if it will make you feel better. Except LSSU banned "conversation" now. As in "join the conversation," which I hear on NPR call-in shows.

Every day. Every single day.

I'm always encouraged to "join the conversation," because the hosts either can't think of anything else to say, or that phrase was carved into the studio desk with a switchblade.

They tell me I can "join the conversation" on Facebook and Twitter.

Except there's no conversation on Facebook. There's never a real "conversation" on Facebook. Unless it involves shouting one's political opinions, refusing to listen to anyone else, and calling them names when they don't agree with you.

Also, most conversations don't include that one photo of Willie Wonka looking so smug you just want slap him.

"(Conversation) has replaced 'discussion,' 'debate,' 'chat,' 'discourse,' 'argument,' 'lecture,' 'talk'. . . all of which can provide some context to the nature of the communication," said Richard Fry, of Marathon, Ontario. He echoed the sentiments of other submitters who said the term was not only overused, it was used by people who still didn't listen.

That's problematic in a conversation, except LSSU just banned "problematic." The Urban Dictionary calls it "a corporate-academic weasel word;" I think it's just another word for "a problem."

The problem with "problematic" is that people like to use it, and other bigger words, to sound smart. They figure if they can take a short, two-syllable word like "problem," and turn it into a four-syllable word, they must be intelligentatic.

Still, this isn't the big controversial word I hoped it would be. I mean, people may find it slightly annoying, but it's not the hair-grabbing words from the past, like "bae" from last year's list, or 2008's "awesome."

No, the one that makes me want to tear my hair out is "vape" and "vaping," which refer to the act of smoking electronic cigarettes. There's just something about e-cigarettes that I loathe in the first place, partly because people think it's okay to do inside a restaurant because it's "not smoke."

Worse than that, they don't even know how stupid it looks. You wouldn't have seen James Dean on a motorcycle, with a cyborg cigarette hanging from his mouth. James Bond doesn't pull a cigarette case and battery pack from his dinner jacket.

I think LSSU should skip the word, and see what they can do about banning vaping altogether, simply on the grounds that it makes the user look like a clueless dork. (Unless you're one of my friends who vapes. Then you look awesome. Forget I said anything.)

The other problem is that vaping has a low "price point" compared to cigarettes.

What's that? "Price point?" It means "price."

Just like "problematic," "price point" complicates language so MBA squinches can feel good about themselves. "Price" is a very short word: five letters, one syllable, that very clearly means what it said, so someone plopped down a second word that doesn't clarify, doesn't enhance, doesn't do anything useful. It's the middle management of language.

Those are just a portion of LSSU's list of banned words for 2016. And if I missed your favorite word, or you disagree with my support of certain words, I can only offer one response:


You can find my books Branding Yourself (affiliate link), No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook.