Reading between the lines

Oh my goodness, I am now a “proverbial philistine” with “smug self-confidence”, the epithets having been bestowed on me at languagehat, by none other than the Hatted One himself.  I am honored and will do my best to carry the titles with all appropriate smuggishness.

But is LH just being a cranky old jackass?  Or is there something else going on? The crankiness was directed at remarks I made about a particular author, but there are indeed other authors he himself is perfectly willing to be smug about.

forbidden-fruitsDan Brown, Grisham, Clancy, Crichton.

Who are these authors and how do his readers seem to know so much about them?  Have they read them?  If they are so objectionable, why?  Not pedantic enough?   Too prescriptivist?  The mystery deepens.  Clearly there is some sort of taboo associated with these books.  I love to read banned books, oh yes I do.  And these works are banned all right.  Not by library fiat, but by the even more subtly powerful weapons of sarcasm, peer pressure, and innuendo.

Dan Brown, Grisham, Clancy, Crichton.

Specifically singled out for special attention was Dan Brown, ranked among the “creators of paint-by-number self-help books”.  So you know which one I want to start with.  Oh, yeah.  By chance I remembered some books I brought home last week that were still in a bag and went to see what they were. Yes, indeed, a book by Dan Brown.

I feel like Orwell’s Winston Smith,  holding “the book” for the first time.

Don’t tell anyone.

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Three Poetry Exercises

If you want to exercise your creative muscles more in the new year, here are some poetry exercises:


This French poetry form can be used with any cultural group or skill level of English.  My beginning ESL students love it.  The format is:

Line 1: States a subject in one word (usually a noun)
Line 2: Describes the subject in two words (often a noun and an adjective or two adjectives)
Line 3: Describes an action about the subject in three words (often three infinitives, or a three word sentence)
Line 4: Expresses an emotion about the subject in four words.
Line 5: Restates the subject in another single word that reflects what has already been said (usually a noun)

Example (in French and English):

Optimiste perpetual
Attend son maitre
Il entend des pas…

Perpetual optimist
Waiting for his master
He hears steps

Form Poems

(from Zee)

Compression channels one’s creativity.  It’s a syllabic poem, 2-4-6-8-2 syllables per line.


The Courtship of Medusa

He came
up behind her
and braided her wild locks.
“Who are you?” She turned to see him

Poetry slams


Nijma, I’m not a typical slammer…I’ve slammed sonnets…yes, trust is key. We found starting with one’s name helps. Also, a fellow poet friend of mine has an awesome “breathing” exercise.

Inhale nose, exhale nose = air

inhale mouth, exhale nose = fire

inhale nose, exhale mouth = water

inhale mouth, exhale mouth = earth

Each energy has its benefits

Each in turn is a good warm up.

More from Zee about Poetry and Slams:

  • The reason poetry works better for me is that I polish as I go. I painstakingly read each page of my novels aloud several times and spit-polish. That “get the rough draft out” doesn’t work for me. I wish it did.
  • As far as the exercises, the ones in our workshop were all centered on Emily Dickinson’s work, so that might not work for you or your students? The next workshop will be centered on song-writers.
  • If you go to open mics (Slam Poetry started in Chicago, after all!) you will hear a LOT of “identity poems” (I am black, I am gay, I am a woman, I am an incest survivor, I am, I am, ad nauseam) and also a lot of poems about songs and famous musicians. Both of these work well for kids, if you need exercises for students.
  • Besides exercises in form and meter, you might try either imitating a style of a poet, or trying to cast it in an “opposite” light (different setting, different tone, etc.) For an “identity” poem, try asking the students to write an introduction to themselves. (When working with really young kids and performance we had them simply stand up and shout their name in an introductory call and response, they love it!)
  • For students with language barriers (English as a second language) we had them read their short poems in both English and their native language, and they felt very empowered.
  • For a language-based exercise you might try working with cliches and common sayings, either as inspiration, or to twist them around.
  • For an experience-based exercise, try writing about a “transition” one faced.

Thanks Zee, via

Posted in Curiosities, ESL, Poetry. Comments Off on Three Poetry Exercises

How do you pronounce King Abdullah II in Arabic?

If you want to hear a word in Arabic, you can hear it pronounced by a native speaker on Forvo, a website for listening to words in different languages.

Forvo is the place where you´ll find words pronounced in their original languages. Ever wondered how a word is pronounced? Ask for that word or name, and another user will pronounce it for you. You can also help others recording your pronunciations in your own language.

This is such a great idea.  Wherever I want to know how to say something in Arabic I have to go shopping for falafel in the Arab neighborhood some 40 minutes away and strike up a conversation. As the  joke goes, a Jordanian concluded a ten minute conversation on his cell phone and turned it off.  His companion asked what was wrong that the conversation was so short. “Wrong number”, the Jordanian answered.  I deeply enjoy these exchanges (and the food), but Forvo might save me some time.

So far, there are  42  Arabic native speakers who have recorded words.

One popular Forvo search is for pronouncing names of world leaders.  Here’s  how to pronounce:

  • America’s president-elect Barack Obama (in English, of course)
  • Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (محمود احمدی‌نژاد) in Farsi
  • So far, no one has recorded a pronunciation for Russia’s president Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev (Дмитрий Анатольевич Медведев), but (searching in English) there are two somewhat different pronunciations in Russian for Medvedev .

abdullah-star-trek-cameoAnd what about my favorite monarch, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, the son of the late King Hussein ( الملك عبد الله الثاني بن الحسين‎)?  In Jordan we just called him “Malik Abdullah”, but I’m not sure what his proper name is.  After all, the world does have more than one King Abdullah. Searching in English, nothing.  Searching in Arabic by pasting the official name from Wikipedia into the search field yields ten possibilites, but none of them is our King.  Searching in English for Abdullah, still nothing, and a search in Arabic for Abdullah as عبد الله shows “Allah” الله (God) has been pronounced but not “abd” عبد (slave).  But skimming the page for male names in Arabic, finally on the last page I see a pronunciation for

So now I know how they say Abdullah in the Gulf states, which sounds pretty much the same as in Jordan, although the guy sounds to me like he has an accent.

If there are any Jordanians reading this who know how to pronounce the King’s name properly with a Jordanian accent, this is a perfect opportunity. I have added the name to Forvo  here.

UPDATE:  Someone has already left a recording of the pronunciation.

How do you Pronounce Nijma نجم ?

nijma-star-icon1-d986d8acd985Pronounced “Nidj-mah”, Nijma نجم means “star” in Arabic. I was given the name by the sister of a friend, who thought I was just like the character in the “Bedouin Soap Opera” who had all kinds of wise answers for life’s persistent problems. When I returned to the city and tried to watch the Bedouin Soap Opera, it had gone off the air, so I never got to pick out which character was my namesake.

I had other nicknames, most of them with a romantic meaning, but this was the name I liked the most, being named for one of my qualities, and not a quality I inspired in the person giving me the name. It is always a female name, and is considered to be a bit old fashioned and rural, the kind of name that a bedouin aunt might have. A wise,  sort of Ann Landerish aunt that you can trust not to give away your romantic secrets.



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America’s most expensive farm land in an ice storm

The prairie has its own architecture. Grain elevators that loom like skyscrapers. Farms with windmills standing alone in plowed fields. Bins with grain moving mechanisms in the cupolas. An ice storm adds tire tracks through the slush, cars in ditches, tree branches coated with ice, the tail lights of a snow plow. Photographed right before dusk.

Posted in Architecture, Curiosities. Comments Off on America’s most expensive farm land in an ice storm

God Jul


Posted in Curiosities. Comments Off on God Jul


orange-with-cloveShopping done? Presents wrapped? Snow shoveled? Not in the holiday spirit? Here is a little antidote: Christmas Glögg.

My chores aren’t done yet, so I’m not quite ready to relax, but I’m already starting to give some thought to this year’s glögg possibilities.

Now I’m no cook, and I don’t even have a family recipe for it, as most Scandinavians do, but I have found out that glögg isn’t really that hard. Last year I played around with it a little bit, and I think I’ve discovered the basic principles. Glögg is what they call “mulled wine”, and consists of spices, citrus peel, and booze heated up together.

In my undergraduate days, one professor had a Mexican crock with a cover that for parties was propped against a bed of glowing charcoal. Inside the crock was a mystery concoction with a whole orange floating in it . Stuck in the orange was a bunch of cloves. When anyone wished to imbibe, they took a dipper and scooped some of the steaming liquid (it was non-alcoholic at that point) and put it into a cup, then added some of the good professor’s expensive booze to it. This system has the advantage of keeping the alcohol from evaporating, as alcohol tends to do when heated. It is also not so dangerous, as those alcohol fumes can be a fire hazard when exposed to open flame.

So here’s what you do in your own kitchen. Get some kind of apple or berry juice–last year I found cranberry-apple on sale. Find an old orange and stick some cloves in it, then pour the juice into a stainless steel pan and put the orange ball in with it, along with a stick of cinnamon. I found a lime in the fridge, so I cut a slice off and put it in with the peel on. You can add more spices, but if you ask me, those recipe books with the dozen or ingredients and all those references to spice bags, citrus peel, raisins, cardamom, and almonds are unnecessarily intimating. Just boil up the juice with the orange ball and cinnamon stick. Then take whatever booze you like and put some in your glass with the hot concoction. I put in about a third Merlot. This is supposed to be a “mulled wine” so brandy (a grape product) would probably be appropriate, but the important thing is to drink something you like. The advantage to using wine is that if you’re like me and real lightweight with booze–I fall asleep on half a beer–you can sip this slowly and feel a little mellow without having the urge to put lampshades on your head.


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Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice–the Longest Night of the Year

Portable Firefox

firefox-portableWorried about the latest Internet Explorer security bug?  Don’t have Firefox at work?  Try installing Portable Firefox on your flash drive.

The download process: When I started to download this, I didn’t see a way to save it to the flash drive, so I downloaded to the default hard drive.  It didn’t put an icon on the desktop, so I went to the download manager and double clicked to open it from there.  This opened a dialog box that gave an option for where to install the browser and I directed it to the flash drive.  At the end of the installation, you get a folder that says FirefoxPortable; inside the folder will be a few folders plus the orange, round  Firefox logo that will start the Firefox browser.

Now for the add-ons.  One of my favorite Firefox add-ons is Urban Dictionary. If your knowledge of the latest leading edge slang doesn’t go beyond “LOL”, you can quickly copy and paste a word into this search engine bar to look it up on the fly. It’s available at the 100 most frequently downloaded plugins page at Mozilla’s Mycroft Project.  While you’re on that page, adding the YouTube search engine can save you a few mouse clicks as well.

My other favorite  Firefox Add-on is the FoxLingo toolbar for quick translations.  Machine translations have their drawbacks, but FoxLingo keeps getting better and better.  I have started using this one in class instead of the slower translation tool to communicate with students who speak absolutely no English. I also like to have an American English spellcheck dictionary installed for on the fly spelling lookups.

While you’re at it, why not install Irfanview image editor? I couldn’t get it to copy from my hard drive to the flash drive–only the shortcuts would copy, which of course means the program itself isn’t there and it won’t run if you move your flash drive to another system.  All copies of Irfanview are portable, so you  can download or unzip it to your portable or thumb drive.  Here is one of numerous free Irfanview download sites.

And how does the Firefox portable browser work?  Just fine. This post was written with it.  On installation you get two options, I chose the faster option that doesn’t save your current session. I notice very little difference in speed from using the hard disk version of Firefox, although the flash drive is a bit slower–it doesn’t really zoom like Vista usually does. Your browsing history from your home computer isn’t available of course–you start over with browsing history.  And if you click on your desktop Firefox icon to open a second window, it will open the portable version, not the one already installed on the hard drive, so you can’t switch back and forth between them.

(Thanks to bulbul via languagehat.)

Update: Opera has a portable version of its browser for USB.

Arabs, what do you think of this picture?

obama-jon-faveau-speechwriter-groperAre you Arab?  Do you know Arabs?  What do you think of this picture?

This is Jon Favreau.  He writes speeches for Barack Obama.  He is the one on the left.  Oh, look, where is his hand?  He put this picture on Facebook.

The large, life-size photograph is a cardboard cutout of Senator Hillary Clinton, Obama’s new Secretary of State.

Where did Jon Favreau get this cutout? The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign had these cutouts in some of their offices. Volunteers liked to take their pictures with the cutout. Here are some pictures of the Hillary cutout from the Denver office, and people taking their picture with it (up in the top left corner).
hillary-cutout hillry-cutout-at-denver1-circled
Yesterday someone asked me what Arabs would think about this photo:


You have Middle Eastern background, don’t you? What will Muslims over there think of the Favreau photo when it reaches them?

Two men and a married woman…. Isn’t that some sort of crime?

Here was my answer:

It’s not usually so much a question of religion but of culture. I lived in the Middle East for a couple years, but it’s a huge place with more than one language and ethnic group, and I can only tell you about the Arabs I was in contact with.

The guy with the bottle–big harram (forbidden, like wasting bread). They might tipple a bit in private with the doors locked, or add something stealthy to a styrofoam cup, (guys only, of course) but public consumption of alcohol is a really big no-no.

Photograph of Hillary? Women over there rarely allow themselves to be photographed–it’s probably more or less up to the husband. But the reason is that the Arab “boyz” will invariably start making x-rated comments. Even a hint of impropriety, and the woman could be killed for reasons of family honor. The photo itself would probably be censored in conservative Saudi because her hair is showing, but Hillary is not showing too much skin in the photo, so from Hillary’s standpoint it’s a culturally acceptable photo. I did meet women who didn’t cover their hair, Moslem and Christian, but not in the rural areas.

The way the guys are acting would probably just confirm their stereotypical ideas of the depravity of American culture. If an Arab guy acted like that it would show a lack of religiousity and pious somberness. In fact, the photo will probably not make it over there. The Arab countries have press censorship (official, not de facto like we’ve got here) and they will not be eager to offend the incoming administration.

Whether the photo will make the rounds of private government officials is another question. The Arabs do understand we have different standards about women, even if they’re not sure what they are. They do have a few women in leadership positions but as their government is based on tribal affiliation, they are holders of seats that are specifically female, not women who have risen with in their communities. So it is very, very possible that the Arabs in decision-making positions will take their lead about Hillary’s real authority in representing the U.S. government from a photo like this. In other words, they will think she is window dressing only.

Yes, it undermines her ability to do her job, in so far as anyone thinks Hillary represents the Obama team and not her own constituency. Who knows, as the wife of a former President, and yes I did see Hillary there with my own eyes–she may be viewed as having her own power base. I think it is a convoluted issue, BO’s continued apparent agreement with Favreau over the respect he is willing to show Hillary may just play into her perceived independent influence, i.e. he doesn’t really want her but she’s too powerful for him to get rid of.

Of course I have to say here Obama is my senator and was my rep before that, and I would like to think he has the presence of mind to put Hillary in that position for the considerable skills she has to offer his team. But in the Middle East gestures mean so much, since words have to be censored, so the meaning could well be interpreted as Hillary not having the authority to speak for the Obama administration in foreign policy matters.

Is this something bad for the man in the picture?  Is this something bad for Hillary Clinton?

Who are you, what do you think, and why?