Monthly Archives: September 2015

12. Why Okies Can’t Use the Dictionary

It’s the oldest joke on the subject of language – “If I can’t spell the word, how can I look it up in the dictionary?”

People don’t realize that the joke could read – “If I can’t pronounce the word, how is a dictionary going to help?”

Here are two vowels, followed by their example words, followed by their pronunciations, as given by the Pronunciation Guide to the Oxford Dictionary. (URL below)

i        sit        /sit/
e       ten      /ten/

Just like the dictionaries I consulted as a child, this is gibberish.

I pronounce the word “ten” as the Oxford people would pronounce the word “tin”, so this confirms to me that “ten” and “tin” are pronounced the same. Therefore, “often” is pronounced “oftin” – except that teacher said to drop the “t”.

The Oxford Dictionary tells me so, and the southern half of America agrees.

It is the fatal flaw of dictionary pronunciation guides that they must refer back to previous knowledge. Linguists use complex and difficult systems independent of the user’s native tongue, but they do nothing for a fifth grader who goes to the dictionary to learn to talk better.

Let’s see what the Oxford people say about the letter “r”:

The symbol (r) indicates that British pronunciation will have /r/ only if a vowel sound follows directly at the beginning of the next word, as in far away; otherwise the /r/ is omitted. For American English, all the /r/ sounds should be pronounced.

Of course, this does not include Boston, where all the “r”s that should have been pronounced elsewhere are saved up and put into words that don’t need them.

The fact is, America does not have just two dialects, Southern and normal; or as my people would say, Northern and normal. America has many dialects, and it should. Britain had many dialects, and their speakers migrated to different parts of America, including one non-dominant English dialect that ended up in the Boston area.

PBS documented this in 1986 in a nine-part series The Story of English, which I recommend highly to those who find a copy and a VHS player to play it on.

Meanwhile, if a kid from Savannah and a kid from Boston meet in the home of a kid from Seattle, it might as well be the United Nations. And a dictionary won’t help.


11. Why the Tractosaur Wouldn’t Go

Bob Dill wrote the song Good Old Boys Like Me, which contained the words:

But I was smarter than most, and I could choose.
Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.

If you live south of Tulsa, you know that he meant the newsman used more words, bigger words, used them in the right places, and didn’t say ain’t. But he pronounced his words just like everybody else.

In Stairway to Danger, one of the books out of my childhood, the Spindrift Island folks were building a remote controlled bulldozer that responded to voice commands, which they nicknamed Tractosaur. They chose a set of command words which were pronounced the same throughout America, including get.

Get? Really! Is there any word which is less universal? Everyone north of Tulsa pronounces it “get” and everyone south of Tulsa pronounces it “git”.

I am an expert on this, as Okie is my native language. Okie is a less extreme version of the language of the deep South.

When I went to college in Michigan things got a little confused. When I first met my new roommate, he said he understood that Oklahoma was a big state for rustling. I said that I hadn’t heard of too many cows being stolen lately.

Rustling was his Michigander way of pronouncing wrestling, which everyone in Oklahoma knows you pronounce wrasslin’. After he got used to me, he translated everywhere we went.

I married a Michigan girl, and after forty-seven years, we still can’t agree on the difference between “i” and “e”. She writes with a pen; I write with a pin. (Actually we both use the computer, but you get the point.)

I can say “pen”, but it hurts my mouth, and I can hear the difference. In fact, if you challenge a non-Southerner, they will pronounce the difference so clearly that you couldn’t miss it if you tried. But catch them when they aren’t thinking about it – especially on the word “open” – and you will hear a sound that falls somewhere between “i” and “e”.

The worst case of i-e confusion came from a vendor selling a pattern at a quilt show in California. She was clearly from the South. Someone had cautioned her against using “i” when others use “e”. Clearly she couldn’t hear the difference, so she stopped using “i” altogether. She gave her demonstration saying, “First you put a pen her, then you fold the cloth this way and pen it again here . . .”

This silly disagreement led me to many hours of reading on linguistics and the history of language. I will spare you the details, but next post I will tell you why Okies can’t use dictionaries.

Walls Against the World

This is not normally a political blog, but as I am a citizen, there are times to speak out. The post originally scheduled to be here will appear tomorrow.

Have you ever asked yourself, “How could Germany have been fooled into following Adolph Hitler?” The answer is on your television this morning, and it is Donald Trump.

I’m not saying that Trump is a Nazi. I don’t see him as evil, merely foolish. But the techniques that have brought him to prominence are the same techniques that Hitler used.

First, appeal to a country’s deepest fears.
Second, claim to be the only one to have the answer.
Third, claim that your opponents are all cowardly and incompetent or, to use Trump’s favorite word – stupid.

The tactics are false. But the fears are real, so Trump promises his followers a wall to keep the world out. There is no wall strong enough to do it.


This morning, September 15, 2015, Hungary closed its borders with a wall of razor wire. By the time this post reaches you, it will have been breached. Count on it.

The Hungarian Uprising of 1956 forms my first political memory. I was eight, and I remember sitting in front of the TV with my parents watching the streams of refugees escaping Soviet reprisals. Eventually 200,000 Hungarians fled. That memory makes it hard for me to watch Hungary put up a wall against Syrian refugees fleeing genocide.

Backed by Russia, East Germany built a wall across Berlin in 1961. It slowed the flow of refugees escaping from tyranny, but it did not stop them. And it didn’t stop the fall of East Germany.

There is a fence across our southern border that holds back no one hungry enough to jump it. Trump wants a wall to hold out “illegals” and a massive sweep through our country to deport the “illegals” who are already here. He wants declare that the 14th amendment doesn’t really mean what it says, in order to authorize the deportation of American citizens, born her just like you and I were.

Hitler would be proud. East Germany would understand. Russia is laughing.


This poem was scheduled for a December post, but current events have brought it forward.

Poetry should stand without explanation, but, like anything else, it can be misused. So, be notified! This is not a right wing call to man the barricades to keep the enemy out, but a cautionary tale about what it will cost us if we don’t find real solutions.


We who horde the common wealth
Upon this crowded planet,
Must look to see what lies beyond
Our barricaded borders.

The world stares back,
Unblinking eyes — prepared
To eat us all alive, and still be hungry.

                              It’s happened all before.

Once, seven in a cave drove out the eighth
With stones and fire-sharpened sticks,
Because the antlered carcass on the ground
Was not enough to feed them all.

And then in ancient days when kings and priests
Invented both religion and the law,
To fill their coffers so that they could eat
While those who raised the food went hungry.

Or yet again, when men of white
Despised the black, and black despised the gray.
And those whose colors ran together were disowned.
Color was enough to make them hate
But hunger taught them how and why
A thousand years ago.

Yet still we breed and laugh,
And play at deafness, though an angry sound
Declares the world is poised to seize its bread.

They will march like locusts through the earth,
And eat us all alive, and still be hungry.

This world is troubled. We are surrounded by people hungry for bread and freedom. Pointing a finger at them and saying, “It’s your fault!’ won’t solve our problems.

And a wall won’t do it. Never has; never will.

10. Book Words

I grew up with my nose in a book. So did you, or you wouldn’t be reading a blog by a writer. If your father was a doctor and your mother was a lawyer, this post is not for you. If your father was a plumber or a mailman – or a farmer – you undoubtedly suffer from book words syndrome.

On the back of every Hardy Boys book was an advertisement for the Nancy Drew book The Golden Pavilion. Or, as I read it, The Golden Pav-UH-lon. I mispronounced it in my head for six or seven years before I heard it spoken and corrected myself. I carried the word a-THE-ne-um around until, at a party for newly published authors, one of my newfound peers said, with just a hint of condescension, “It’s pronounced a-thu-NE-um.”

It comes from growing up in low or middle class surroundings while reading books by first class minds. You end up carrying around thousands of words which you read and write, but never speak or hear spoken.

Dictionaries don’t help much, as I’ll explain in the next two posts.

All this doesn’t make you better than your friends, but it does make you strange. I suppose in a large school you could find others like yourself and make up your own geek clique. In my little town, I didn’t have that option so I became bilingual – book language in my mind, but Okie when I spoke aloud. When I forgot to translate, I got the strangest looks.

There is a danger here beyond simple embarrassment. Little kids with heads full of big words can become impatient with simple language. If you plan to be a writer, that can be a disaster. Writers have to get rid of book words baggage early, or they will remain erudite and unpublished.

Book words still throw me off from time to time. Ennui (internally pronounced IN-u-e, just like it looks in English) and ennui (spoken with a French flavor) floated around independently in my head for decades before Pete Hutter said, “There’s nothing like a revolution to break up the ennui of ordinary existence,” on the TV show Bricsco County Jr., and I suddenly realized they were the same word.

That doesn’t make me dumb; it’s just the curse of book words.

9. Old Libraries

My reading patterns were set early, by scarcity. I spent my few quarters on Grosset and Dunlap books: Tom Swift Jr., Hardy Boys, and Rick Brant. Rick Brant stood head and shoulders above the rest, having a real author rather than ghost writers. There will be more on him in another post.

On birthdays and Christmas, the other presents were appreciated, but the books were devoured. Before I discovered libraries, there were never enough books, so I read and re-read the ones I had. I still do. I would be embarassed to admit how many times I’ve read the Amber, Dorsai, and Lensman books.

My grade school class – all eight of us – was the last to haunt a building that had housed three hundred before my town shrank. We discovered a disused closet that still held the books that had been the library, and there I read my first book for adults, Thomas Costain’s The Black Rose.

The county library in Claremore was where my heart and soul lived, but I also had a dalliance with the library in Collinsville. It was an old, small, red brick building donated by Andrew Carnegie. If you have passed through small town America, you’ve probably seen one just like it. Carnegie libraries all look the same.

That was where I discoved one of the great secrets of life: libraries are time machines. I don’t mean that they have books on history. I mean that they never have enough money, so they never throw anything away. In Collinsville in the sixties, the shelves were full of books published during and before World War II. Not only were they about bygone days, the books themselves were actually, physically old. Hundreds of boys, too young to fight, had sat in that library reading the Dave Dawson war books that I now held in my hands.

The same actual books. Match that, ebooks!

So I learned to re-read and to treasure books from eras past. I still read John Buchan regularly, holding my nose at his imperialism and racism. And I can lip-synch Louis Lamore.

At home, there were plenty of my mother’s romance books. Occasionally I read a paragraph or two before nausea drove me away. Then, while digging through the books at home, I found one rare treasure, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, published in 1911. Yes, the taser book, although I couldn’t know that because this was long before tasers were invented.

My grandfather, who lived in Florida and whom I saw only once a year, had read this Tom Swift (Sr.) book fifty years earlier, and he was the one who sent me my first Tom Swift Jr. many years later.


8. Written on 9-11

I was in the shower getting ready for a day at school when my wife called to me. A plane had hit the World Trade Center. By the time I dried and dressed, the second plane had hit.

Twenty minutes later, driving to work, I listened on the radio as the towers fell.

All day long I taught science, keeping to the lesson plan. I didn’t want to teach, and no one wanted to listen, but it was necessary to keep a semblance of normalcy. Every break we teachers watched the television, but we didn’t take any news back to the classroom. Our students needed to be in their own homes, with their parents, before they began to deal with the details of America’s disaster.

At the end of the day, I drove home. I had upon me the need to write, but not of the tragedy. Others wrote that day of what had happened, and wrote well. I needed to write of love and joy and beauty – and of my wife who is all those things to me.

Poems come slowly to me; usually they take years to complete. This one rolled freely about in my head as I drove, and when I arrived at home, I only had to write it down.

There Am I

Where there is water, there am I.
In sweet, soft rain and in hard rain,
driving and howling,
or filling the air with luminescent mist.
Water is life, and there am I.

Where there is sun, there am I.
In the soft heat of morning or in the harsh afternoon,
or heavy with moisture, forcing its way through clouds,
or dry as a lizard’s back.
Where the Sun is, is life, and there am I.

Where Earth is, there am I.
Whether dark loam, freshly plowed
or webbed with fissures, hard as stone,
or sandy, or soft as moss.
Where Earth is, is life, and there am I.

Where life is, there am I.
rainforest or desert,
broad plains of grass, or brooding jungle,
Where life is, there am I.

Where She is, there is life,
and sun and rain and earth, and all good things.
Where She is, is life,
And there am I.

The “I” was supposed to be me, of course, speaking of my own love for wilderness, and “She” was, of course, my wife.

However, when it was done it felt more like a religious poem. Strike the last verse, let the “I” be God and it sounds like something written by someone with a great deal more faith than I have. Odd.