Here are twelve examples of twelve different prefixes that invert the meaning of the original word:

  • Typical -> Atypical
  • Normal -> Abnormal
  • Climactic -> Anticlimactic
  • Intuitive -> Counterintuitive
  • Mystify -> Demystify
  • Similar -> Dissimilar
  • Logical -> Illogical
  • Possible -> Impossible
  • Conceivable -> Inconceivable
  • Align -> Misalign
  • Conformist -> Nonconformist
  • Sustainable -> Unsustainable

Here are twelve examples of twelve different cases where an inverting prefix doesn’t invert the original word:

  • Alive -> Live
  • Aboriginal -> Original
  • Antibody -> Body
  • Countermeasure -> Measure
  • Deliver -> Liver
  • Dismantle -> Mantle
  • Illustrate -> Lustrate
  • Imposter -> Poster
  • Informed -> Formed
  • Mistake -> Take
  • Nonchalant -> Chalant
  • Uneasy -> Easy

En Retard: Part I

The world is changed. Smoking marijuana is hip, but smoking cigarettes is disgusting. Profanity is simply an expression, but racial slang is bigotry. Today we will be discussing the evolution of language, specifically targeting changes caused by increased sensitivity toward certain terms, namely the word retard.

The website is dedicated to the eradication of the term retard and offers visitors an opportunity to pledge to never use the word again. It also posts stories submitted by those who have been affected by the word. Here’s one from Mia Kraker:

“I was at recess when someone in my class called my friend the r-word. The r-word is extremely hurtful to many people. I am working to stop the r-word and people all over should be, too.”

Now this story definitely isn’t one that sparks faith in humanity, but it’s interesting that the storyteller is expressing dissatisfaction with the perpetrator’s choice in terminology, not the fact that her friend was publicly berated. Here’s another story, submitted by Maggie Scott:

“…in my hallways at school I hear the people call many people many names including the r-word. But why does our world have to be like this? It doesn’t and I’m ready for a change…”

This person is obviously disappointed that her fellow students use derogatory language, as she should be, but she notes that the term retard is only one of “many names” being thrown around. It seems as though Maggie, like Mia, isn’t so much concerned with name-calling or harassment as she is with the use of the word retard, which causes one to wonder why this word is considered especially offensive.

Ellen Seidman, in her article 5 Things People Don’t Get About the Word “Retard”, makes this statement regarding the term, “…The word ‘retarded’ derives from the term ‘mental retardation.’ Years ago, that was a clinical diagnosis used to describe people with intellectual disability. But words evolve and change meaning, as words tend to do, and the words ‘retard’ and ‘retarded’ have evolved into insults. In 2010, Congress itself replaced ‘mental retardation’ and ‘mentally retarded’ in federal health, education and labor laws with the term ‘intellectual disability.’ The word ‘retarded’ has morphed into a slur – why many people are shunning the word.”

Seidman is correct, the word retard was once a clinical term that has since devolved into a slur. However, her assertion that people are shunning the word because it is slur is not accurate, for there are many commonly used slurs that our society tolerates. Before we continue, let’s establish a definition of the term slur and distinguish it from its cousin, slang.

Slang is casual or informal language that denotes familiarity with the mundane and reduces discomfort with the taboo. Here are some examples:

  • Money (coin, cheddar, clams)
  • Sex (shag, get lucky)
  • Murder (whack, hit, waste)
  • Automobile (ride, wheels)
  • Cocaine (blow, nose candy, snow)

While slang and slur sometimes overlap, a slur is an offensive term that describes a people group, such as a race or ethnicity. In other words, slur is slang used to insult others by associating them with a type of person, regardless of whether or not the label is accurate.

Unfortunately, this definition is much more broad than we might think. After all, there is no supreme authority determining what is or is’t offensive, for that depends on the audience. Also, if a slur can target any group of people, then this would include every physical, mental, emotional, religious, genetic or social characteristic by which we might be identified. Here’s a list of some groups whose titles are deemed acceptable slurs:

  • Nationality
    • American (Yankee, redneck)
    • Canadian (Canuck, Newfie)
    • British (limey, redcoat)
    • French (frog)
    • German (kraut)
  • Physical Condition
    • Overweight (fat)
    • Underweight (twig, stick)
    • Young (child, baby, immature)
    • Old
    • Crippled (lame)
    • Athletic (jock)
    • Weak (sissy)
    • Intellectual (nerd)
    • Blind
    • Deaf
    • Mute (dumb)
    • Alocholic (boozer, wino)
    • Drug-addicted (junkie, crackhead)
  • Appearance
    • Ugly
    • Red-haired (ginger)
    • Blonde-haired (dumb blonde)
    • Bald (cue ball)
    • Short (shrimp)
    • Acne (crater-face)
    • Glasses (four-eyes)
  • Mental Condition
    • Unintelligent (stupid, idiot, moron, imbecile)
    • Schizophrenic (crazy, nut, fruitcake)
    • Psychopath (insane, psycho, wacko)
    • Depressed (emo)
  • Social or Economic Status
    • Poor (trailer trash)
    • Wealthy (spoiled, filthy rich)
    • Uneducated (stupid, dunce)
    • Unemployed (deadbeat)
    • Unsuccessful (loser, failure)
  • Profession
    • Police Officer (pig, narc, dick)
    • Lawyer (rat, shyster)
    • Psychologist (shrink)
    • Janitor
    • Prostitute (hooker, hoe)
    • Used Car Salesperson
    • Taxi Driver (cabbie)
    • Carnival Employee (carny)

It’s difficult to determine why terms like redneck and redcoat are acceptable, while redskin is considered unacceptable, or why it’s okay to mock someone for wearing glasses, but not for using a wheelchair. Regardless, it’s obvious that using a label or characteristic to attack others is not in itself enough to incur public rejection. Perhaps, then, it’s the fact that retard was once a clinical term that causes the controversy, but the terms idiot, lame, and crazy were also used to describe medical or psychological conditions and are now considered acceptable.

As Maggie Scott’s story revealed, we use a variety of words to insult one another, so what makes retard uniquely objectionable? To answer this question, we must first understand how and why words become insults.

If we ponder classic insults such as fat, poor, stupid or ugly, we realize that they share something in common, and that is an association with negativity. Implicit-association tests reveal that we all harbor unconscious positive and negative sentiments toward certain people groups. The origin of these associations is not always understood, but it’s not hard to imagine why a person would hold a negative view of ugliness or stupidity. The truth, no matter how we dress it up, is that we don’t want to be fat, poor, stupid, ugly or retarded, and this is the foundation for every insult – a negative association between a term and a condition.

As we grow and interact, we absorb and catalog information, whether we’re aware of it or not. Part of this process involves learning which personality traits, professions and body shapes are undesirable. Parents, teachers, friends, magazines, television and movies all reveal expectations and role models as well as examples of failure and corruption. Even at a young age, children are well aware of the values and qualities that their culture deems unacceptable, and they have firmly established negative associations. This is exemplified by the schoolyard bullying and teasing that most children endure.

So what’s the real problem here? Is it that we say words some consider unacceptable, or is it that we use negative characteristics and labels to attack one another? If we’re going to banish retard from our vocabularies, what do we do about all those other slurs, especially the ones that our society deems acceptable?

In part II we’ll find out why there is so much controversy surrounding the word retard and discuss the effectiveness of the r-word movement’s strategy as well as some alternative solutions.

Litching Swetters

Talking, much like walking, is a necessary function that can be fun but becomes tedious over time. Slang helps to keep things interesting by constantly rearranging and adjusting the meaning of words, but its downfall is that it renders previously meaningful language unusable. Clams, cheddar, green, dough and paper are all slang terms for money, but they are not new words; they were redefined for the ignoble purpose of attempting to appear original. By taking words that have a specific use and applying them to something else, language is eroded and our vocabularies shrink. This practice is especially foolish when the object being named already has its own word. Language is always evolving – this is inevitable – but we do not need more words for money.

Sometimes something completely new is discovered and needs to be named, but instead of redefining an existing term why not create entirely new terminology? Everything was nameless at some point, so we shouldn’t hesitate to assign new titles to new things. Unfortunately, inventing an entirely new term may seem simple, but making a word that sounds legitimate is more complicated, for speaking a meaningless word produces noises that seem fabricated and unnatural. We can reduce this effect by engineering our word to resemble existing English words. The simplest way to do this is to simply switch a few letters in two already established words.

First, choose two words. Let’s pick some that aren’t too complex or unique-sounding. As an example we will use some words that are right at our fingertips: shift and delete.

Second, we take the first sound of each word, which in this case would be sh and d, and switch them. The result is two brand new words: shelete and dift. Fun and easy, right? Let’s practice a few more.

  • silk hamper = hilk samper
  • nice tool = tice nool
  • gutter hulk = hutter gulk

This method can also be used to create nicknames for friends and family as well as original names for pets and babies. It works basically the same way as with words, but we choose two names instead.

  • Peter Smith = Smeter Pith
  • Bill Scott = Skill Bot
  • Jenny Williams = Wenny Jilliams

Most of these examples are pretty straightforward. We take the consonant sound from the beginning of each word or name and exchange them. But what about words and names that don’t begin with consonants? Let’s try Adam and Charles. Because Adam does starts with a vowel sound we simply switch the ch sound from Charles to Adam, which produces Chadam Arles. 

What about when neither of the two words starts with a consonant sound, as with Oliver and Amos? We simply switch the vowel sounds, giving us Aliver Omos. Because we are alternating the sound and not merely the letters of the two components, we must sometimes alter the spelling of the new words or names so that they are properly pronounced. Aliver Omos would be more accurately spelled Aeliver Ommus.

Okay, so what do we do when one or both of the words starts with multiple consonant sounds, such as glamour and freedom? We actually have two options in this scenario, for it is viable to switch either the first or both the first and second consonant sounds, producing either glamour and greedom or framour and gleedom.  

Go ahead and give it a try using the names of people and items around you. Nineteen words of caution: letter switching is highly addictive, so be sure to practice reservation or you may test the patience of others.

Good luck microing your Stink Blockers.


noun. [noun] -noun.

1. any word that describes a person, place, thing or idea. Alright, students, please circle the noun in this sentence.

Using language to describe language can be difficult, but the common definition of a noun as, “a person, place, thing or idea” is downright foolish. People, places and ideas are things.

Solitaria Verba

Language is tamed noise. Locked inside a calcium cage, our tongues, like wild beasts, are subjugated and conditioned to perform from a repertoire of acoustic tricks. As the grotesque, red muscle contorts and undulates, vibrations from within cavernous depths are molded into distinct tones. When pushed up against one another, these tones meld into creatures known as a words. Words seldom appear alone, preferring to gather in small groups called sentences. The shape and size of words will differ from region to region, each vocal species, or language, employing its own unique variations. Together, all the words roaming the plains of our mind form a vocabulary.

Words offer a means to meaning, and every word is unique. Some words are docile and benevolent, some are cunning and devious, while others are ruthless and threatening. By calling forth words, we can invoke their nature to create sentences which have the the power to exalt or shame, create or destroy. However, there are some sentences which have a meaning distinct from the sum of their words; these are known as idioms. 

Often puzzling to outsiders, an idiom employs familiar words in unfamiliar ways by borrowing meaning from culture and legend. But beyond the realm of the idiom, there remains an even more rare and mysterious form of verbal expression. Though they could technically be classified as idioms, this special variety contains solitaria verba (isolated words). This means that inside each phrase there is a word which is not used in normal speech, instead appearing only in combination with select words. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Aided and abetted
  • Happy belated birthday
  • Coursing through its veins
  • Pent up anger
  • Clean slate
  • Jog your memory
  • Growth spurt
  • Rail against authority
  • Off kilter
  • Vehemently disagree
  • Let bygones be bygones
  • Stave off hunger
  • Eastern seaboard
  • Gale-force winds
  • Star-spangled banner
  • Bubonic plague
  • Hellacious beating
  • Self-deprecating humor
  • Drunken stupor
  • Abject poverty
  • Wreak havoc
  • Stunt your growth
  • Stoop to their level
  • Doesn’t bode well
  • Pare it down
  • Vested interest
  • Rue the day
  • Torrential rain
  • A moot point
  • Biding your time
  • Morbidly obese
  • Sweltering heat
  • Full-fledged professional
  • Snide remark
  • Good riddance
  • Rifled through
  • Privy to the information
  • That was riveting
  • Batten down the hatches
  • Figment of the imagination
  • Tide you over
  • Run amok
  • Keel over
  • Fell swoop
  • New-fangled contraption
  • Rickety ladder
  • Scantily clad
  • Brunt of the impact
  • Staunch atheist
  • Gyrating hips
  • Brandishing a weapon
  • Beck and call
  • Frenetic pace
  • Abominable snowman

These words are used by many, but could be defined by few. We don’t think about the definition of each individual word because we know the meaning of the phrase, but that means we are saying words that we don’t even understand. Perhaps, if put on the spot we could come up with a vague, clumsy definition, but we don’t really know what these words mean because they aren’t a part of our vocabulary. Let’s think for a moment: what things are abominable, other than snowmen? Have escaped zoo animals ever walked amok? When did we ever rue the night or wish someone bad riddance? Did we ever bide anything other than time or play with something that was just plain fangled?

Don’t use words you don’t understand.

Blind, the Thief

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from some form of visual impairment. The major cause of these visual impairments is refractive errors within the eye, which can often be corrected by surgery or prescription lenses. Unfortunately, most of the world’s population does not have access to these vital treatments.

There are around forty million people who could be considered blind, having very little, if any, visual perception. Without the ability to perceive the world around them, those living with blindness were historically excluded from literacy. This lasted until 1825, when Louis Braille devised a seemingly ingenious system of writing, which he selfishly titled Braille.

This system uses symbols which are represented by arrangements of raised dots on a flat surface, and it can be used in conjunction with a number of different languages. Each character is made up of two vertical rows of three dots, which, when arranged in various combinations, together represent a single letter of the counterpart language. Inspired by Indo-European writing, the characters are separated by spaces and are read in order from left to right, top to bottom.

Although Braille has opened the doors of written expression to many optically impaired individuals, it does suffer from a serious deficiency: Braille requires translation.

When a Braille character is read, it must be converted into the language of the reader. If the reader has not learned Braille, then the character is interpreted as a collection of meaningless bumps. So why did Lou design his system so that everyone must learn an additional language in order to read it? Part of the answer is that Braille was inspired by a system called night writing, developed by Charles Barbier at Napoleon’s request.

Night writing was intended to enable soldiers to communicate silently in the dark, not to assist the blind. Because it was created as a military code, the characters were intended to be interpreted by the soldiers, thus the need for translation. Barbier visited Louis Braille at the National Institute for the Blind in Paris and showed him his work. When Lou first laid his greedy eyes on Barbier’s night writing system, he was overcome with jealousy and clubbed Barbier over the head with a piano leg. After simplifying the code from a 12×12 to a 2×3 matrix, Lou unveiled his pilfered creation, naming it after himself to conceal its fraudulent origin. Aside from its dubious descent and need for translation, Braille has other significant flaws.

First, those with sight are unable to read Braille signs, which means that we must create twice as many signs, always one for the sighted and one for the sightless. This encourages disunion between these groups.

Second, and most importantly, Braille requires that its users to learn a whole new system of writing. To those who have been blind since birth, this may not seem like a chore, since they have never known another written language, but the majority of blind people were not born with their condition. Most visually impaired individuals suffer from age-related blindness caused by various conditions such as cataracts or oversize sunglasses. These people are likely to already be familiar with a writing system, so learning Braille would require them to learn an additional language which, when read, must then be translated into their first language.

The solution? Instead of having various arrangements of raised dots symbolizing letters of an alphabet, we should use a system that can be easily understood by everyone, regardless of their visual ability. In place of a 2×3 matrix, this new system will use a 3×5 matrix, and instead of developing a code for translating dots to letters, we will just write the letters with the dots. For large text requirements we could even just use embossed letters.

This system would be far easier to teach and much more accessible to those living with blindness, since everyone already knows it. Some, like Lou, may think that the symbols are too complex, but there are numerous examples of individuals like Esref Armagan, the famous blind painter, who are born without any sight, yet are able to accurately envision creatures, places and structures that they have never seen. Imagining letter shapes shouldn’t be a problem.

This new system shall be christened in honor of its true progenitor.

Now we can all enjoy written language together.

First Languages

We all know that everyone has a first language, in terms of communication. We think, write and speak using vocabulary from the language we grew up with. However, this pattern exists beyond the language of oral and written expression and applies to individuals when first contact is made with any system. Whatever system you first encounter, metric or imperial, English or French, piano or guitar, you are eternally cemented in the framework of that system. No matter how intensely you study another system, you must always translate to your first language in your mind.

When someone attempts to learn the metric system, a centimeter is likely described to them as, “approximately half an inch.” Teaching by translation and conversion is slow, tedious and it encourages the mental translation which occurs in the student’s mind. This is not how we learn our first languages, so why do we try to learn new systems in this way? Think about how you first learned the length of an inch. Did someone tell you that it was one twelfth of a foot? Of course not. You learned the length of an inch by looking at something that was an inch long and associating that length with the term inch. This is how we should learn all new systems – observe, then associate.

If someone wants to learn to speak Spanish, they should not merely pick up a Spanish-English dictionary and read it cover to cover. If a person simply wanted to be able to recite Spanish translations of English words, then that dictionary is probably their best bet. Although this tactic may give them a large Spanish vocabulary, their ability to associate those words with objects, feelings or actions would be non-existent. In order to truly comprehend and absorb a new system, you must associate the new terms directly with the world around you.

Translation is the enemy of learning.