Visual Dissonance

Visual Dissonance

René Magritte is remembered today above all for his visual dissonance[1]: writing “This is not a pipe” (in French) under a painting of a pipe. I experienced something similar the other night when I saw that a TV programme about a top Spanish chef opening a restaurant in London was sponsored by Burger King. I don’t know if this was a supreme statement[2] of irony: Burger King is exported from Britain to Spain so that the masses there can eat imitation American food while watching the trials and tribulations[3] of the creating of a restaurant in London in which they will never be able to afford to eat[4]!

Today I opened Yahoo ‘News’ to see that one of the stories was about the 25 best-paid jobs. “I wonder[5] where translator, interpreter, proof-reader, copy editor are in the list?” I didn’t ask to myself. Of course, mere wordsmiths[6] are nowhere to be found in such lists (and no doubt wouldn’t make[7] the top 200 best-paid jobs. But like the Pict in Rudyard Kipling’s poem[8] we can “dance on the graves” of rich and powerful professionals. At number one in the list is físico (= physicist) next to a photo of a pregnant woman and her doctor. Visual dissonance? No, deficient language skills[9]. Before you rush off[10] to do a physics degree, be aware[11] that ‘physician’ is a relatively common way of saying ‘medical doctor’ and does not mean ‘physicist’.

[1] visual dissonance – the psychological tension caused by the difference between what you expect to see and what you in fact see

[2] statement – assertion, declaration

[3] trials and tribulationsproblems

[4] they will never be able to afford to eat – they will never be able to eat because of the prices

[5] to wonderask oneself

[6] wordsmith – linguistic expert

[7] to make (make-made-made) – be included in

[8] A Pict’s Song:

[9] skillstalent, prowess

[10] to rush offgo precipitously

[11] be aware – I should tell/remind you

Transsexual Science

Transsexual Science

Image by TransgenderGraphics

This post is copied from “Identities.Mic”. However, I thought it was worth making[1] it EFL-friendly (by footnoting it).

It’s hard[2] to argue with science. And yet so many people keep trying[3]. Recently, a science teacher’s response to a transphobic claim[4] that transgender people “do not make scientific sense” went viral on Facebook.

The teacher began by explaining the many different ways nature can determine sex and gender beyond[5] X and Y chromosomes. “First of all, in a sexual species, you can have[6] females be[7] XX and males[8] be X (e.g. insects)”, the teacher wrote in her post. “You can have6 females be7 ZW and males8 be7 ZZ (birds). You can have6 females be7 females because they developed[9] in a warm environment[10] and males8 be7 males because they developed9 in a cool environment10 (e.g. reptiles). You can have6 females be7 females because they lost a penis-sword-fighting[11] contest[12] (e.g. some flatworms[13]). You can have6 males8 be7 males because they were born female but changed sexes because the only male8 in their group died (e.g. parrotfish[14] and clownfish[15]). You can have6 males8 that look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual[16] females to mate[17] with them (e.g. cuttlefish[18], bluegills[19] and others) or you can be one of thousands of sexes (e.g. slime mold[20] and some mushrooms.)”

“Oh, did you mean humans? Oh, OK then. You can be male8 because you were born female, but you have 5-alpha reductase deficiency[21] and so you grew[22] a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome, but you are insensitive to androgens and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome, but your Y is missing the SRY[23] gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male8 because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your Xs has an SRY23 gene, and so you have a male8 body. You can be male8 because you have two X chromosomes but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome. And you can be male8 because you have two X chromosomes, but your ‘heart’ and brain are male8. And vice-versa.”

Ann ended her post with a very simple declaration. “Don’t try to use science to justify your bigotry[24]”, she said. “The world is way too weird[25] for that shit[26].”

For more footnoted texts, please visit

[1] it was worth making – it was a good idea to make, I should make

[2] hard – (in this case) difficult

[3] keep trying – continue to try to do it

[4] claimstatement, declaration, assertion

[5] beyondoutside, apart from

[6] you can have – there are

[7] be – (in this case) that are

[8] male – ♂

[9] to develop – (in this case) be an embryo (in an egg)

[10] environmentphysical context, setting

[11] penis-swordfightingtype of duel in which the phalluses are used as arms

[12] contest – competition, (in this case) combat

[13] flatworm – (platyhelminth) type of invertebrate

[14] parrotfish – (Scarinae) type of tropical and subtropical fish

[15] clownfish – (Amphiprioninae) type of colourful fish (such as Pixar’s ‘Nemo’)

[16] actual – (false friend) real, authentic

[17] to matecopulate

[18] cuttlefish – (Sepiida) swimming mollusc similar to a squid or an octopus

[19] bluegill – (Lepomis macrochirus) a species of freshwater fish

[20] slime mouldsingle-celled eukaryotic organisms that can live freely but tend to aggregate

[21] 5alpha reductase deficiency – 5-ARD, an autosomal recessive intersex condition caused by a mutation of a gene

[22] to grow (grow-grew-grown) – (in this case) develop sth., begin to have sth.

[23] SRYsex-determining region Y

[24] bigotryprejudice

[25] way too weirdfar too strange, much too bizarre

[26] shit – (in this case) nonsense

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

The Early Bird Catches the Worm

In many written languages there is a direct correspondence between combinations of letters and combinations of sounds. No doubt you have already realized[1] that English is not such a[2] language. Just[3] think of the dozens of homophonic pairs and groups in English – such as lain[4]/lane[5], raise[6]/rays/raze[7], phase/faze[8] and isle/aisle[9]/I’ll.

One concept that can be hard[10] for non-natives to internalize is that we produce the sound /ɜ:/ in a number of different ways including: -ear- before a consonant (e.g. ‘pearl’), -er- before a consonant (e.g. ‘herd[11]), -ir- before a consonant (e.g. shirt), -ur- before a consonant (e.g. burst[12]) and -or- after w- and before a consonant (e.g. word). A useful phrase for fixing this idea in one’s memory is “the early bird catches the worm[13]”, in which the vowel sound in ‘ear(ly)’, ‘bird’ and ‘worm’ is the same (not similar, exactly the same). The phrase refers to the fact that the person who takes the first opportunity to act will have an advantage over others.

[1] have realized – (false friend) are conscious

[2] such athis type of

[3] just – (in this case) simply

[4] to lie (lie-lay-lain) – be horizontal, recline

[5] lane – track, path

[6] to raiseelevate

[7] to raze – burn down, destroy

[8] to faze – disturb, disconcert

[9] aislepassageway in a church or supermarket

[10] hard – (in this case) difficult

[11] herdgroup (of horses or cows)

[12] to burst (burst-burst-burst) – inflate and explode

[13] (earth)worm – (Lumbricidae) terrestrial invertebrate

The Sausage Dog & the Great Dane

The Sausage Dog & the Great Dane

Photo by Dan Bennett

These are two breeds[1] of dog that can provide pronunciation assistance[2] for non-native speakers of English. Serious people call elongated short-legged little dogs from Germany ‘dachshunds’, though I have difficulty imagining a dachshund taking on[3] a badger[4] as the name implies (der Dachs is German for ‘badger’)! Less serious Anglos call dachshunds ‘sausage dogs’ because of their elongated shape[5]. The good thing about this informal term is that there is assonance between ‘sausage’ and ‘dog’. In other words we pronounce the -au- in ‘sausage’ like the -o- in ‘dog’.

‘Great’ is one of three very important words in which -ea- is pronounced /ei/ (the other two are ‘break’ (a homophone of ‘brake[6]) and ‘steak’ (a homophone of ‘stake[7]). The easiest way to remember the pronunciation of ‘great’ is in the name of that ‘gentle giant’ breed, the ‘Great Dane’ (a homophone of ‘deign[8]). Interestingly, Great Danes have nothing to do with[9] Denmark. These dogs used to be known as German boarhounds[10] in England and ‘the English dog’ (die Englische Tocke) in German. In the 20th Century, as conflict arose[11] between Germany and the English-speaking countries, names were childishly[12] changed to avoid using[13] ‘German’ (and Englisch). So, the boarhounds became known as ‘Great Danes’ (probably in part because of the assonance) and eventually[14] the Germans even started calling it die Dänische Dogge (‘the Danish dog’).

[1] breed – kind, type (of dog, cat, horse, etc.)

[2] assistance – help

[3] to take on (take-took-taken) – attack, challenge

[4] badger – (Melesmeles) an omnivorous nocturnal mammal with a grey coat and a black-and white striped face

[5] shape – form

[6] brakemechanism for stopping a vehicle

[7] stakepointed stick

[8] to deign – condescend, do sth. beneath one’s dignity

[9] to have nothing to do with (have-had-had) – be unrelated to

[10] boarhounddog used for hunting boar (= wild pigs)

[11] to arise (arise-arose-arisen) – emerge

[12] childishly – in an infantile way, (in this case) petulantly

[13] to avoid using – so as not to use

[14] eventually – (false friend) in the end

A Good Woman, Little Women

A Good Woman, Little Women

Continuing my series of mnemonic phrases that teach you to pronounce difficult words correctly, I turn to[1] Hollywood for help.

The essential terms ‘woman’ and ‘women’ cause no end of difficulties. The short “u” sound in the first syllable of ‘woman’ is not that common in English but we do find[2] it in ‘good’, so the title of the 2004 film starring[3] Helen Hunt and Scarlett Johansson, A Good Woman serves our purposes perfectly.

An even more euphonic term is ‘Worcester woman’ – a British sociological term for a working-class mother who is not very interested in politics and lives in a small town such as Worcester. However, it is impossible to get Americans to[4] pronounce Worcester as “woosta” /’wustə/, so I’m not even going to try with non-English speakers.

The mnemonic title to teach non-Anglos to pronounce women as “wimin” is undoubtedly that of Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel Little Women (1868), which has been made into countless movies.

For more footnoted texts, visit

[1] to turn to – ask, (in this case) go to

[2] do find – (emphatic) find, encounter

[3] starring – (in this case) whose central actors were

[4] to get Americans to (get-got-got) – to make Americans, to teach Americans to


Apologies for the recent silence but my life has been dominated by correction work for my university students, which has to take priority. One interesting thing came out of[1] all that correcting. If my students want their corrected work back[2], they have to send me a message from the email to which they want me to return it. A number of them asked for their corrections with phrases including the word ‘kindly’, such as, “Would you kindly send me my corrected work?” I have absolutely no doubt that they were trying to be polite[3]. In the past ‘kindly’ did more or less mean[4] ‘please’. However, as The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage points out[5], the use of ‘kindly’ to be formally polite has been declining for decades leaving the other adverbial use – to express authority and irritation. “Would you kindly not smoke?”, “Kindly keep your voice down” and “Kindly leave me alone” have the formality of using Usted in Spanish of vous in French but express the speaker’s frustration, not his or her respect.

P.S. We were incapable of finding an image to illustrate this blogpost, sorry!

[1] to come out of (come-came-come) – emerge from

[2] back – (in this case) returned

[3] politecourteous, wellmannered

[4] did mean – (emphatic) meant

[5] to point outindicate

Flexed Burial

Flexed Burial

Photo by Herb Roe,

Over the last 20 years I have been collecting the words whose pronunciation cause my students most problems. In recent months I’ve decided that one way to confront these problematic pronunciations is to present the words in established expressions in which the pronunciation is reinforced by a sound parallelism[1].

I’ve decided to start the presentation of these terms with the archaeological expression “flexed burial[2]. OK, admittedly it’s not an expression you’re going to use every day but it can be graphically illustrated and it should help with the frequently mispronounced ‘burial’, in which the -u- is pronounced /e/. Finally, notice that ‘flexed’ is pronounced /flekst/.

Please tell me if you find this useful because, if you do, I should be able to produce d ozens of similar illustrated expressions over the coming weeks and months.

For more on sound parallelisms, look out for[3] my forthcoming[4] book Rhyme or Reason? The euphony of 10,001 everyday word combinations.

For more footnoted texts, visit

[1] sound parallelism – repetition of the same sound in consecutive stressed syllables

[2] flexed burial – when a cadaver/skeleton has been interred in a fetal position

[3] to look out for – be vigilant for

[4] forthcoming – in the pipeline, coming soon