Pop Quiz


Which of the following abbreviations are acronyms?

  1. BBC
  2. CIA
  3. FBI
  4. inc.
  5. LASER
  6. NASA
  7. OPEC
  8. radar
  9. RAM
  10. scuba
  11. snafu
  12. USA

Clue: Seven of the abbreviations are acronyms, four are initialisms, and one is just a plain old abbreviation. To be classified as an acronym, a word—usually made up of the initial letters of a sequence of words—must be pronounceable, as in UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund). If the letters are said individually, as in DOJ (Department of Justice), the word is an initialism.

Answers: 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

  1. An initialism for British Broadcasting Corporation
  2. An initialism for Central Intelligence Agency
  3. An initialism for Federal Bureau of Investigation
  4. An abbreviation for Incorporated
  5. An acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation
  6. An acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  7. An acronym for Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
  8. An acronym for Radio Direction and Ranging
  9. An acronym for Random-Access Memory
  10. An acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus
  11. An acronym for Situation Normal—All F***ed Up
  12. An initialism for United States of America

NOTE: If you like number 11—snafu, said to have been coined by GI’s during World War II—you’ll love fubar (F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition), tarfu (Totally and Royally F***ed Up), and the like.



‘Homage’ Rhymes with ‘Bondage,’ Sort Of


When I began editing the course catalog at the University of Arizona, the biennial catalog had just been printed. That meant that for the next two years, I had to confront, on a regular basis, the following solecism at the top of the first page of text:

            An Historical Sketch

In American English, a few words—generally of French origin—begin with a silent H. They include hour, honor, honest, heir, and herb (but not herbicide). In most words beginning with H, however, the H is pronounced, as in handkerchief, her, him harass, height, heinous, helicopter, history, homage, house, hospital, hostile, house, huge, human, and hysteria.

Would you say “an house” or “an hat?” I hope not. No more would you say “an history.” When an indefinite article—a or an—is called for before historical, use a, as follows:

            A Historical Sketch

In a heading, you might as well omit the indefinite article altogether:

            Historical Sketch

* * *

Fairly recently, educated people who are otherwise well spoken have begun pronouncing the word homage as if they are writing a poem and they are desperate to find a word to rhyme, sort of, with garage, so they choose


An alternative but also less-than-ideal pronunciation is…


“Careful” speakers—generally people like me who spend far too many hours squinting at dictionaries and style manuals—say homage like this:


In fact, the New York Times published an entire article on the topic, in which the author, Ben Zimmer, goes to bat for HOM-ij.

In his book “The Accidents of Style,” Charles Harrington Elster calls [oh-MAZH]... a “preposterous de-Anglicization” that is “becoming fashionable among the literati.” Elster had previously complained that good old HOM-ij was losing out to OM-ij “in havens for the better-educated like National Public Radio,” and for defenders of the “h” pronunciation oh-MAZH just adds insult to injury…. A check of NPR’s audio archives corroborates Elster’s hunch.

I have a sneaking suspicion that people who Frenchify their vocabulary—seizing every opportunity to revert to the French pronunciations of English words that may have been in our language for hundreds of years—are putting on a little show. They want us to think they speak French, so they wrinkle their noses and elongate their vowels when saying French-based words and phrases such as hors d’oeuvre, entrepreneur, ambience, en route, and, yes, homage. Oh, well. It’s a harmless affectation. C’est la vie, n’est-ce pas?







Amuna Go Now


According to Treehugger.com, “Fasting can be a preventative and therapeutic approach against obesity and metabolic disorders.” This is probably good news for people who find it possible to abstain from eating for hours or days on end. It’s bad news for those of us who dislike the word preventative used as an adjective. Fastidious users of the English language prefer preventive.

It’s a bit surprising when people add unnecessary syllables to common words, as in orientate and cohabitate. Orient and cohabit are better choices and require less effort to say or write, and we commonly slip into language shortcuts without even giving it a thought.

For a while I thought it was just me, but I’ve noticed that many, if not most, English-speakers are lazy about diction. I may WRITE a sentence such as the following:

I am going to walk to the pharmacy

…but when I SAY it, it comes out like this:

Amuna walk to the pharmacy.

Probably, at some point in the evolution of the shorter form, I said

I’m gonna walk to the pharmacy

…but “I’m gonna” collapsed into “Amuna” —during my forties, I suspect, at about the same time my arches collapsed. Pure laziness.

Preventive, orient, and cohabit don’t represent phonological laziness, however. They’re neater, cleaner, and more nearly “correct.”

Color My World


Following is the introduction to my book Annagrammatica’s Children’s Dictionary of Invisible Things. You can get a PDF of the entire book for free or you can purchase the book on my website.

The Golden Age of Illustration 1880s-1940s

About 140 years ago, an amazing transformation took place on the pages of magazines and children’s books. Where there had been few if any pictures, and these in black and white, suddenly glorious color illustrations appeared. Some of the finest artists in the world began illustrating familiar tales—such as the Grimm brothers’ fairy tales—and new books as well. For over 50 years, the outpouring of color art flooded so many pages that the time is called the Golden Age of Illustration. One of the first children’s picture books to appear was Kate Greenaway’s Birthday Book for Children (1880).

kate greenaways birthday book

Kate Greenaway’s style influenced dozens of artists, including Millicent Sowerby, an English illustrator whose pictures for the book Childhood (1907) fill every page with rich, warm color—very different from Arthur Rackham’s dark, broody illustrations. If I had owned an Arthur Rackham picture book when I was a child, I would never have read it at bedtime for fear of nightmares!

Arthur Rackham Alices Adventures in Wonderland

by Arthur Rackham, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Turn back a page to see my very favorite illustration. The artist—Jessie Willcox Smith—depicts a boy with his arm around his sister, or perhaps his cousin or his best friend. The way his hand covers hers, you know that he would do anything to make her happy. Another artist whose pictures are full of love is Bessie Pease Gutmann. Clearly she adored children… and dogs as well. I’ve used many of her illustrations in the pages of this book.

Jessie Willcox Smith brother and sister

My favorite illustration, by Jessie Willcox Smith

Before the Golden Age, few women could earn money as artists. Suddenly, women’s art decorated millions of book and magazine covers and inside pages. Almost all the pictures in this book were created by women.

Millicent Sowerby from Childhood 1907

by Millicent Sowerby, from Childhood, 1907

Can you imagine a universe without color picture books? Yet through many thousands of years of human history, we’ve had color picture books for only a little over a century. The Golden Age changed the way we see the world. Isn’t this a wonderful time to be alive?

Bessie Pease Gutmann Rocking the Baby

by Bessie Pease Gutmann


Don’t Let It Rankle

bird preening

The other day I heard a sports journalist make a case on the radio for paying salaries to student athletes. He admitted that the issue is controversial and it might “rankle people’s feathers.”

I’m not sure what it would look like to “rankle” someone’s feathers. In fact, I don’t do well imagining people with feathers at all, unless they’re nine feet tall, bright yellow, and birdlike.

The idiom this journalist was reaching for, I believe, was “ruffling feathers.” Birds, evidently, don’t like to have their feathers tousled. Some species spend a great deal of time preening, perhaps for the purpose of attracting members of the opposite sex. If something or someone interferes with the birds’ careful grooming, they become understandably cross. Human beings, likewise, resent others’ attempts to disarrange things—their plans, their ideas, their preconceptions, and their feathers, I suppose, if they are wearing any. So, yes, paying salaries to student athletes would certainly ruffle a lot of metaphorical feathers.

Feathers can be ruffled but they can’t be rankled. This is due in part to the fact that rankle is an intransitive verb; it doesn’t take an object. If something doesn’t sit well with me, it rankles. It doesn’t rankle me. It doesn’t rankle anybody else. It just rankles. Period.

“To rankle” is to cause annoyance or unease. Let’s say you get caught jaywalking and you’re assessed a $25 fine. You admit you broke the law; you grit your teeth and pay the fine; but still… it rankles.

Rankle comes to us through Middle English from an Old French word that meant “festering sore,” from an even older Latin word—draco, meaning “serpent.” So I suggest that, if something rankles in your universe, you do whatever is necessary to get it out of your system before it festers and turns venomous. Herpetophobics everywhere will thank you.

Emoji Whiz


My iPhone came with a vast library of emojis. Besides the obligatory faces portraying various skin colors and moods, there were tiny pictures of libraries, hospitals, cars, boats, doctors, nurses, fruits and vegetables, flags, even little piles of poop.

Now I have an Android, and it is emoji-deficient. Not only does it offer far fewer emojis, I’m not always sure what they signify, especially the faces. Maybe you can help me out. Here are a few I find most perplexing, along with my best guess as to their meanings:

Two noses I have two noses

Two noses embarrassed about itI have two noses and I’m embarrassed about it

trying to eat a zipperTrying to eat a zipper

too much makeupWearing too much makeup

too cool for schoolToo cool for school

suffering from head traumaSuffering from head trauma

snoring and droolingSnoring and drooling

have lost circulation to top of headHave lost circulation to the top of my head

oh my have lost circulation to top of headOh, my! Have lost circulation to the top of my head


in high dudgeonIn high dudgeon



Blinded by love embarrassed about itBlinded by love / embarrassed / too much makeup

A few of my emojis, not pictured here, I think are supposed to indicate “kissing.” Sometimes I’d like to send someone a kissing emoji, but I don’t want to engage in inappropriate kissing. Some of the kissing emojis seem to suggest passionate kisses. There’s no one in the world right now I’d send a passionate kiss to without knowing whether the person is interested in exchanging passionate kisses with me. I don’t want a reputation as the type of girl who sends passionate-kiss emojis to guys she barely knows. Maybe there should be a kissing-with-a-question-mark emoji. I’m just not clear on the protocol.

(My old iPhone had green hearts, blue hearts, and yellow hearts. I stayed away from those for fear that a green heart, say, might be code for “I want to marry you and bear your children” or “Seeking a passionate relationship with a shrub.”)

The emojis pictured above rarely if ever express my actual status, and if they did, I wouldn’t want to use most of them. Do I really want the world to know that I’m constipated or trying to eat a zipper? So I’m forced to conclude that the people who created these emojis are either suffering from head trauma or have lost circulation to the top of the head. But there’s an off chance that I’m just not translating the emojis correctly. I’d really like to be emoji-literate, so if you have better definitions than I do, please send them along, okay? Thanks! ;>)

Let’s Hear It for ‘Ain’t’


From Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain, 1883

To a question on Quora about the “difference between ‘I am’ and ‘am I,’ I submitted this answer:

Inflections in a language are changes within words that indicate attributes such as tense, case, number, gender, and so forth. For example, the English-language suffix -ed to show past tense is an inflection.

English uses few inflections compared with, say, German, which is said to be “highly inflected.” Instead, English relies upon word order. The statement “I do play the trombone” has a meaning quite different from the question “Do I play the trombone?”

Thus, “I’m” (or “I am”) is understood in English to begin a statement, whereas “Am I” usually introduces a question. Interestingly, you will rarely hear English-speakers say “Am I not?” Someone arriving tardily to a meeting will rush into the room, panting, “I’m late, aren’t I?” It’s ungrammatical, strictly speaking, but the logical contraction “amn’t” does not exist in English. “Aren’t I” is acceptable in virtually every context.

What I did not say, because it wasn’t germane to the question, is that the much-maligned word ain’t could slip neatly into the first-person-singular negative interrogative form of the verb to be. I would go so far as to say that “ain’t I” is better, grammatically speaking, than “aren’t I.”

When I was learning the language, ain’t was the grammatical scarlet A. It scorched the air like a cussword in a deacons’ meeting. A person who said “ain’t” was not only linguistically inept but also considered intellectually backward and socially inferior, one of the great unwashed, fortunate to have shoes and clean underwear, probably living in a rusted-out trailer, three kids to a room. Ain’t is probably the most stigmatized word in the English language.

No one is sure why this is so, as, indeed, ain’t was standard for centuries among cultured speakers in literature, particularly in Britain. “For most of its history, ain’t was acceptable across many social and regional contexts. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, ain’t and its predecessors were part of normal usage for both educated and uneducated English speakers, and was found in the correspondence and fiction of, among others, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Henry Fielding, and George Eliot.” (Wikipedia)

Logically, we might as well say, “I amn’t.” It would be consistent with the second and third persons, as in, “You aren’t,” and “he isn’t.” But the issue doesn’t arise in the declarative form because we contract I with am and say, “I’m not.” Only in the interrogative do we come up against the lack of a contraction that makes grammatical sense, and so, rather than say, “I’m late, am I not?” which is just too, too prissy for us plainspoken Americans, we blurt, “I’m late, aren’t I?”

And we’ll keep on committing this same solecism, as long as the grass is green and the skies are blue, because, thankfully, language is not math and there are quirky inconsistencies at every turn. Are there not? And would we truly have it any other way?

What’s Your Type?


In 1964 I took a typing course at my high school, Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska. Go, Eagles.

It was my mom’s idea. I was doing fine with the hunt-and-peck method, I thought, and anyway, I didn’t want to be a secretary when I grew up. I wanted to be a minister or a Rockette or something. But my practical mom said that, regardless of my career choice, being a good typist would come in handy. She was right, as usual, and by the end of the semester I was typing more than a hundred words a minute. My speed was aided by ten years of piano lessons, no doubt.

Of course, I was typing on a manual typewriter. It was important to be accurate because, if you made a mistake, you had to erase it. We didn’t have correction tape or Wite-Out in 1964.

There wasn’t much choice when it came to fonts. Most typewriters had Times Roman or something similar in one of two sizes: pica or elite. With pica you got ten characters per inch; elite gave you twelve.

When I went away to college, most of the girls in my dorm had typewriters, almost all with elite type. Mine had pica, making it the most popular typewriter on my corridor. That’s because writing assignments typically specified the number of pages required, not the number of words. If you were writing a three-page paper using a pica font, you didn’t have to write as many words. A hundred and twenty characters and spaces ate up twelve inches in pica type but only ten inches in elite.

You should know that all characters were the same width, so an M took up the same amount of space as an I. By contrast, most computer fonts today have proportional spacing, so an M is noticeably wider than an I. The font called “Courier,” with fixed spacing, is an exception.

In my typing class, we were taught to place two spaces after the period at the end of a sentence. This made sense when all characters and spaces were the same width but became unnecessary with proportional spacing. For some arcane reason, the American Psychological Association stylebook still stipulates two spaces between sentences. Evidently the APA believes it makes text more readable, but someone has actually performed a study on the matter that refutes the APA’s claim. In any case, if you ever happen to come across a document in which periods are followed by two spaces, the writer learned to type on a manual typewriter and is probably well over 40 years of age.

To my way of thinking, the strongest argument for placing just one space after the period at the end of a sentence is this: If you type two spaces, there’s a chance that one of the spaces will end up at a line break and you’ll have a space floating at the beginning of the next line. That would be ugly. You want a nice, even look on your left margin, don’t you?

The most remarkable thing about all this, as I see it, is that somebody actually did a formal study on the matter. It got me thinking about silly research topics, so I googled “ridiculous research” and came up with a few wowzers:

  • A study that showed the beneficial effect of electric fans in extreme heat and humidity
  • A study that revealed a difference between the sexes in human beings
  • A study showing that conservatives like to use nouns more than liberals
  • A study concluding that Spiderman doesn’t exist
  • A study suggesting that a healthy diet will help you live longer
  • A study demonstrating that being homeless is bad for your health

Your research dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen!

kittensThe saddest study of all came from the Centers for Disease Control, which warns that “cuddling with kittens can kill you.” Apparently cat-scratch fever is actually a thing. I did a little research of my own, because I happen to love kittens and enjoy cuddling with them. It turns out that 0.007 percent of the U.S. population is infected with cat-scratch fever every year and hardly anybody dies from it. Clearly there’s a researcher at the CDC who harbors an antipathy to cats and just wants to make trouble for them.

Fortunately, according to mentalfloss.com, there’s a countervailing study showing that “owning any pet is good for your heart. Cats in particular lower your stress level—possibly since they don’t require as much effort as dogs—and lower the amount of anxiety in your life. Petting a cat has a positive calming effect.”

Global Communication Today

Khrushchev banging shoe

Reported today in the Times of Israel (https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog-april-30-2018/)

In a series of tweets, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accuses the US of creating instability in the Middle East and warns it will “certainly suffer from defeat” if it confronts the Islamic Republic.

Is it just me, or is there irony and even humor in the fact that the Ayatollah has a Twitter account? There’s something about saber-rattling via Twitter—a medium originally designed to inform your friends where you were enjoying happy hour and with whom—that takes some of the sting out of the warning.

What if Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev had tweeted “We will bury you!” in 1956 instead of making the threat in person to a group of ambassadors and striking fear in the hearts of parents everywhere? The world may little note nor long remember everything Khrushchev said, but the world is still talking about his scarily banging his shoe on the table at a U. N. meeting in 1960—even though there’s a distinct possibility that the Soviet leader never did such a thing at all.

The Ayatollah’s tweet, by the way, garnered a measly 679 likes.


Donald Trump, at an April 28 rally in Michigan:

All of these [Hispanics} pouring across [the border] are gonna vote Democrat. They do it for a lot of reasons. A lot of times they don’t even know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, but we have to have borders and we need it fast.

Where to start? For one thing, does the president really believe that the first act of undocumented workers once they cross the border is to register to vote—assuming that the possibility is even available to them? Moreover, I would suppose that those fleeing all manner of ills in their countries of origin know exactly what they’re doing and why.

Finally, allow me to remind the president that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent. “We have to have borders and we need it fast”? Mr. President, you need to learn English, and you need it fast.

A tiny capitalization lesson

  • Donald Trump, president of the United States
  • The president
  • Mr. President
  • President Donald Trump


My E-Bike and I

electric bicycle

Item for your to-do list:

—Buy an electric bike.

They’re not cheap, and you can’t buy an old, beat-up–but–serviceable one at a flea market. You’ll probably have to spend well over $500 for a new e-bike (mine was $700 on Amazon), but an excellent bicycle without the power assist can cost much more. If you’re going to buy a high-dollar bike you might as well get one that will let you sail up hills with ease and panache.

I love my e-bike. It’s my primary transportation, so I use it to run errands, to go to church, to visit friends…. People who aren’t aware it’s an electric bike are awestruck when they see a 70-year-old cyclist take steep hills without breaking a sweat. At least I imagine that’s what they’re gaping at. Maybe it’s my dorky fuschia bike helmet, but I prefer to think it’s my astounding athleticism.

‘Twas not ever thus. When I first got the contraption last fall, I kept falling off. Early in the day, when there weren’t many people about, I’d take it across the street, where there’s a giant parking lot, and I’d practice, and practice, and practice… and fall off. My knees kept hitting the handlebars and knocking me off the bike onto the ground. I tried raising and lowering the seat, but it didn’t seem to matter. After three weeks, my legs were covered with scrapes and bruises, and I wasn’t getting any better.

One November morning I took a harder-than-usual spill. Flummoxed and discouraged, wondering if I was ever going to get the hang of it, I sat on the hard, cold concrete next to the bike for five minutes or so, trying not to weep. A few kindly motorists stopped and asked if I needed help. “Thanks, I’m fine,” I sniffled, but it was a lie. The truth was, I was running out of weather suitable for bike-riding, and I wasn’t any closer to success than when I’d taken my first turn around the lot. Besides, the e-bike had been a gift from a friend concerned about my sedentary, solitary lifestyle. Bad enough that I had a $700 bike I couldn’t use. How could I tell my generous benefactor that his thoughtful contribution to my mental health was battering my body and annihilating my self-esteem?

At last I took a deep breath, stood up, and hauled my 57-pound bike to an upright position for the eighth or ninth time that morning. Right away I noticed that something was different. The controls weren’t where they’d been before I splatted. Instead of the power controller being on the right and the gear-shift knob on the left, their positions were reversed.

In a flash, I understood. The entire front assembly—the wheel, the handlebars, the brake levers—had turned 180 degrees when the bike hit the ground. Suddenly, magically, everything was in the correct position. I’d been riding the bike with the front part turned the wrong way ‘round. No wonder my knees had been hitting the handlebars and knocking me ass-over-teakettle.

I laughed out loud. I might have done a happy dance. Then I hopped on the bike and rode home. I haven’t fallen off since that morning. Problem solved.

Why hadn’t I figured it out earlier? Because I’ve never had a bike that would allow the front wheel and handlebars to be reversed in such a way. On all my old bikes, you could turn the apparatus only so far—maybe 120 degrees—before it would bump into the frame and refuse to turn farther. Besides, the handlebars were always bent or curved inward toward the rider on the older bikes. On my e-bike, the handlebars stick straight out to the sides. There’s nothing that screams “front!”

I’m still far from being an expert rider. I’m leery of busy streets, none of which have bike lanes. I don’t know how to use the gears to best advantage, and if I’m riding up a steep hill and I have to stop for some reason, it’s hard to get going again. I had one such experience on the way to a doctor appointment, and I ended up turning around and going home. But with every excursion I grow more adept. It’s the end of April; I have an entire summer to build my strength and confidence, and to find bargains on stuff like thermal underwear and goggles so that I can ride year-round, as long as the roads aren’t slick or snow-covered.

By the way, mine is a pedal-assist model. That means the motor won’t kick in unless I pedal. There are three power levels, so I can choose how much work I want to do and how much I want to rely on the motor. It’s up to me how much exercise I get.

If you’re thinking of getting a second car, consider an e-bike instead. It’s kinder to the environment, it’s a practical form of exercise, and it’s a whole lot of fun. Look for one that’s not as heavy as mine. If I had a 25-pound e-bike, I could probably lug it up the stairs into my apartment. Not happening with one that’s over half my body weight.

A tiny grammar lesson

Some grammar-and-style experts advise against ending a sentence with a preposition. Surely you’ve heard the famous comment (mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill), “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

I’m reminded of the joke about the guy who asked his friend, “Where do you want to have lunch at?” The friend replied, “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” Guy Number One said, “Okay. Where do you want to have lunch at, a**hole?”

The same experts don’t like to begin a paragraph with the word I. In fact, they’d rather you not start too many sentences with I. Well, I agree that a series of sentences starting with I can be tiresome. But if you’re writing about yourself, your experiences, or your opinions, it’s natural to begin sentences with I. Sometimes you can easily rearrange a sentence, inserting an introductory clause or phrase as I did a number of times in this essay. Sometimes you can’t.

I wouldn’t worry about it.