Words I Learnt This Month

This is turning into a monthly thing, where I expose my pig ignorance of my own native tongue in the hope of getting better at it.When I think of all the words I don’t know, I’m constantly amazed at how I get by.

antediluvian – Of or belonging to the time before the biblical Flood, in other words ‘ridiculosly old-fashioned’.

glasnost – (in the former Soviet Union) The policy or practice of more open consultative government and wider dissemination of information, initiated by leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

apotheosis – The highest point in the development of something; culmination or climax. I might just stick with ‘climax’, unless I’m trying to avoid sexual innuendo, in which case I’ll try to remember how to spell ‘apotheosis’.

inimical – Tending to obstruct or harm: “actions inimical to our interests”. Another one of those words which I hear all over the place but had never got quite straight.

biddable – as I intuited, not just to do with being able to bid on it, say, at an auction, the word ‘biddable’ means ‘Meekly ready to accept and follow instructions; docile and obedient’. Now I can see how one sense came from the other.

sang-froid – plomb: great coolness and composure under strain; “keeping your cool”

antipathetic – not actually the opposite of pathetic. ‘Showing or feeling a strong aversion.’

phrenology – The detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities. From this picture of a ‘phrenology bike helmet’.

goonbag – the foil bladder of a carton of wine. It’s a cheap way of getting drunk and a convenient inflatable pillow once emptied.

This Month’s Search Term Analysis

  • “nate fisher” “asshole” – I can understand why you’d put Nate Fisher inside quotation marks, but “asshole” is one word, so no need to tell Google to treat it as such.
  • why do i hate romance novels? – I know, right? You just hate something, but you don’t really know why. So you Google it, of course, to find out.
  • creating scary veins – What you do is you get really really angry. Try watching all five seasons of Six Feet Under back to back. I can tell you for a fact that you’ll hate either nate fisher (asshole) or brenda.
  • make a hipster – …do what, though? Oh, you mean actually ‘make’ a hipster, in the intransitive sense? Well, you came to the right place.
  • man’s dick – Seriously. People should be a little less fussy about their porn. Good luck finding one of those on the Internet. Instead… you ended up here. I still do not know how that happened.
  • drunken smurf – I am learning that Googlers like to do random and bizarre things with smurfs.
  • stories with adverbs – You’d be hard pressed to find any story without a single adverb, but I hope you found what you were looking for here.
  • its perfectly normal – Yes. Yes, love. It is. Nothing like random googling to make you feel normal again. Best. Therapy. Ever.
  • radio clown – I think the man you’re looking for is Kyle Sandilands.
  • the flu katherine mansfield – I’m not sure Katherine Mansfield ever wrote about influenza, but she did write a story called The Fly. I’d like to read a KM short story about the flu, however. I’m sure it would’ve been good. Shame she died so young.

On Hair

Very recently our ancestors were covered in hair (or really fur, hair simply being the word we gave our own fur so as to feel a little special).

– Rob Dunn, from The Wild Life Of Our Bodies

1. Body Hair: The Not So Naked Ape, from The Economist

2. How Hairy Skin Is Wired For Touch, from Cosmos Magazine. “Different types of hair follicle are tuned to sense different sorts of soft touch.”

3. I’m hopeless with hair. I have trouble with pigtails on a three year old, let alone a waterfall braid on myself.

4. What Guys Think About The Hair Down There, from Jezebel

5. Why Does God Love Beards? from Slate Magazine

6. How To Give Barbie An Afro (and call it a halo instead), from Jezebel

7. Moustache Blog.

8. A handy pictorial guide to types of facial hair.

9. Cure for baldness: Tattooed Hair. (But what do you do when you’re really old and you look weird with black stubble?)

10. Science Confirms What We Already Knew: Women Don’t Really Like Beards, from The Daily Mail.

11. Fix that receding hairline with some leg hair from The Body Odd

12. Which haircut makes you look smarter? Apparently, women with short hair look smarter than women with long. I’m tempted to put this down to femme phobia, but I’d wager it’s also to do with the fact that it costs more time and money to maintain a short, stylish hairstyle, and so it’s probably part of that whole thing whereby ‘people with money’ look ‘smarter’ than people who look like they are poor.

13. Bald Men, This Nude Mouse With One Sad Tuft Of Hair Could Be The Key To Your Follicular Future, from Discover Magazine, with a freaky picture of a mouse. Looks more like a rat, to me.

14. How Hair Can Be Used To Track Where You’ve Been from Slashdot

15. Mustache transplant craze sweeping the Middle East, from All Top

16. We Can Dye Our Hair With Real Gold Nanoparticles from io9

17. It’s Got A Cotton-ball Taste, says woman addicted to eating balls of cat hair from The Frisky

18. Five Uncomfortable Moments I’ve Shared With My Waxer from The Frisky

19. The Story Of My Hair Is The Story Of My Life from Huffington Post

20. The Politics Of Hair from No Entitlement

21. Names, Words, and Phrases Appearing in a Single NYT Story About Hair from Jezebel

22. Women Are Expected To Be Attractive from The Shake

23. Sexual Selection: Ignore the blonde? from Discover

24. The Interesting Hairstyles Of Asians from BF

Book Covers Of Fiction I Have Read Recently

I had heard about this book and was interested in reading it before I ever saw its cover.

The colours are appropriately dark and reminiscent of a bruise. This makes me wonder if the dark atmosphere universally evoked by blue and black came about partly because of human pallor — with well-lit skintones and rosiness of hue evoking health, of course.

The black border allows a slight fisheye distortion, which is how the mother and son in this story see the world — through a skylight.

There is a single main image smack in the middle — a toy block with a handdrawn window on its roof. This skylight is obviously important to the story, and the handdrawn look of that window (and of the font of ‘Room’) reflects the inventiveness of the mother, who makes toys out of bits and pieces  to keep her son amused while in captivity.

The textured overlay lends a shabby look to cover, and echoes the disrepair of the prison. I like this cover, and was drawn to it.


I borrowed this book because of the author not because I was drawn in by the book’s cover. The story takes place in New York and starts at the time of the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers. For this story setting is crucial, so it’s appropriate that the front cover depicts a cityscape of New York City. Two beams of light shooting upwards serve to break up the almost uniform darkness of the sky.

This is a love story as much as it is a disaster story, so the ‘twin’ beams of light might also symbolise the two young men who fall in love, growing closer together as the story progresses — as do these two beams of light as they diffuse into the atmosphere. (On the other hand, I’m sure I’m reading too much into those beams of light now.)

While I don’t feel particularly strongly about this cover one way or the other, I’m glad to read a YA story in which the main characters are not depicted on the front cover. I prefer to imagine characters in a book without too much influence from the cover art.


This was a bookclub book so I didn’t choose it myself.

The clothing of the character gives a sense of when the bulk of this story took place, as does the sepia toned colour scheme. That muted shade of red works well, and it’s fitting that the title and author’s name are separated by a line, to which barbed-wire ornamentation has been added.

I’m not sure what that man is walking on, however. Not a wire. For some reason I think it’s some sort of breakwater at the seaside, yet this story doesn’t take place near the sea.

For a novel blurbed as ‘triumphantly funny’ I’m not sure the cover depicts that. I didn’t find this book the slightest bit funny, however, so I found the cover design to be a more accurate representation of the story than the blurb.


This cover looks more like that of a YA novel than the David Levithan book above, with its grungy texture and primary red.

In a story about domestic violence, it’s easy to attribute the red to blood. The house keys, I suppose, symbolise the domesticity of this story, and the fact that the two brothers share different residences until the younger comes to find the older, at which stage being given a house key is symbolic of human warmth and brotherly love.

But my copy of the book is the one below:

I’d love to know why a single book comes out with different covers on it, because we’re always told that publishers are strapped for cash these days and I’ve heard a cover design costs several thousand dollars. I’m sure there’s science behind it, and I’d love to know what it is that makes one cover sell better in Britain and another sell better in America, and what publishers think of Australasians and our cover preferences. (Not a lot, I should think. There are not enough of us.)


The problem with this cover is that it gives away too much of the plot. It’s not until the reader is a few chapters in that we learn of the primate. I already knew too much about this book after hearing the author speak about it in a panel discussion about animals in literature. But I’d be interested to know the experience of someone reading this story with no inkling of its plot — maybe someone who listened to the audiobook rather than saw the cover.

So, on the one hand I don’t think a gorilla should be depicted on the cover of this book. On the other hand, primate relationships are central to this novel, and the reader deserves to go in knowing something about it. But I do wonder if a cover made entirely of text art might suffice, because surely readers are all different when it comes to how much we need to know about a story before embarking upon it. For Australian readers, at least, surely the author’s name was enough to sell this book.


This is the version I read. There are many other covers for this classic:

Not a fan of this cover, though it may have been trendy at the time of publication. It is part of a John Wyndham series and it looks good as part of that. Perhaps this appeals to the book collecting instinct in Wyndham fans.

On this cover, the boy looks significantly older than the boy above, even though he doesn’t age much over the main part of the story. Now that I’ve said that though, perhaps there’s more leeway in this than I give credit for, when the story includes flashbacks. There’s probably no real need to depict a character whose age matches that of the story that happened in the past perfect.

I’m drawn to the colours of this one, and I’ve also noticed that I’m a sucker for handdrawn font.

This graphic looks a bit crude by today’s standards, in which the most is made of Photoshop.

But the one thing all of these covers have in common is their creepiness, so they do achieve their purpose.


This is the cover of the version I own (picked up from a second hand bookstore) but of all the versions, this is the one I like the least. I would prefer less red and more darkness, since this is not a fast-paced thriller nor an especially gory read, but rather an exploration into the darkness of human nature.

That’s why I prefer this one better:

And this even better:

(Or is it the same one? Funny how it photographs better in two point perspective.)

And so I’m learning that, with few exceptions, a single dominant image on a book cover is the safest bet for a layout that works. That’s not to say a skilful graphic designer can’t pull off a cover featuring many different images juxtaposed artfully, but it would seem I’m most drawn to simple designs no matter what.

A Bit Fancy

pic by jetalone

Certain students stand out from my Japanese teaching days. I remember a year 10 student called Amy who greeted every fascinating fact and word list with rolls of the eyes and, ‘But whyyy do they have to say it like that? Wouldn’t it be much more logical to just say it like this?’

Japanese, as you may have heard, can be a bitch of a language to learn. Not so much if you’re aiming to speak it, but if you would like to learn to read and write Japanese, I’d set aside a good ten years of your life.

Compared to English, Japanese looks like the epitome of logic, however. This is no doubt due to the fact that until recently it had evolved in relative isolation from other languages. The longer you study it, the more logical it seems.

That said, there’s not a single natural human language in the world which follows the laws of logic.

This is because language is made up by toddlers.

Anyone who has spent long periods with a three-year-old will know how inventive they can be, making up words and phrases as they see fit, without the slightest inhibition about getting their very important points across.

Today I took our three-year-old to Subway for lunch. We went halves in a footlong. Today I ordered a chicken schniztel (because after asking for a ‘chicken sub’ I learnt that there are at least five different types of chicken subs, and I’m sure I became one of the most hated customers as I hurriedly decided which of those five chicken options I would like. Honestly Subway: TOO MANY choices!)

We sat outside under a tree. The three-year-old asked me to identify the components of the sandwich. This is a running theme of late — asking me ‘what’s inside’ every darn thing. I blame her father and their annual pass to the local science museum, where you are able to dissect large models of human ears and other joys.

“What’s this?” the toddler asked, holding up a small black thing.

“That’s an olive.”

“Olive. Yum. I like olives. What’s inside of an olive?”

“Nothing. Just more olive.” (They were pitted and sliced.)

“Is it meat inside of an olive?”

“No, just olive.” (This got me wondering about what olives are made of. Prunes are made of plums, raisins are made of grapes, but I have honestly never considered what olives started out as. As far as I know — and care — they started out, and ended their days, as olives.)

Next, it turned out the chicken schnitzel option was on the spicy side, so the toddler told me she didn’t want it.

“Fine. I’ll eat it,” I said, and took it off her hands. I hate to see meat go to waste because I don’t imagine it’s a pleasant life, to be born as a Subway chook, although my guilt goes onto so far as to do it the favour of actually eating it after purchase. (Though I am considering vegetarianism more and more of late.)

But the three-year-old noticed that attached to the chicken schnitzel were some rogue olives, slices of red onion and lettuce. Don’t ask me how she can like olives and raw onion but eschew slightly spicy chicken: as I’m about to explain, three-year-olds are random.

“Hey!” she protested. “Don’t take my fancies too!”

“Your what?”

“My fancies!”

She took back her chicken schnitzel and proceeded to wipe the olives, onion and lettuce off the meat and back into her sandwich (most of which had already fallen onto the ground, I might add, to no fanfare whatsoever).

For my daughter, ‘fancies’ is the word she made up today, to describe all the toppings that go into a Subway sandwich.

After laughing heartily and vowing to make use of that word myself (which she’ll be heartily sick of by the time she’s 18), I wondered how on earth she came up with that word.

As far as I can tell (though personal testimony as research is heavily flawed) I don’t make much use of the word ‘fancy’. One of the first things I noticed about British English when I lived there several years ago was that people living in and around London frequently offer food or beverage with the phrase, ‘Would you fancy a [brew]?’ When I heard this from young people I thought it was hilarious and quaint. In New Zealand I’d only ever heard this phrase from the elderly, and the odd British immigrant. Cute as it sounds, it’s not a phrase I adopted myself.

But I’ve since thought about it a bit harder and I think I probably do say, ‘Oooh, that’s a bit fancy’, when complimenting the toddler’s drawing efforts and suchlike.

In short, the toddler took an adjective she’d heard, turned it into a noun to fit her purposes, and added a plural.

I now think Subway staff should ask, ‘And which fancies would you like?’ This makes far more sense than ‘toppings’, since technically they are inserted inside the bread, not on top.


National Napping Day

Poets go to bed earliest, followed by short story writers, then novelists. The habits of playwrights are unknown.

Ann Beattie

1. Women and Sleep from The National Sleep Foundation.

2. Read About Infographics Then Have A Nap from NowSourcing

3. Some scientists think lack of naps could mess toddlers up for life from Jezebel.

4. Four Essential Sleep Habits For Kids from Natural Papa

5. Before the industrial revolution, people had two distinct sleep periods during the night from OMG Facts

6. Five Reasons You Need More Sleep from Fit Sugar

7. The Key To Happy Kids? Sleep and Exercise, from Whole Living

8. The Truth About Sleep and Productivity: Working overtime doesn’t increase your output. It makes you stupid, from Inc.

9. Ten Reasons To Go Back To Bed from io9

10. You’ll Sleep When The Crushing Loneliness Subsides from Jezebel

11. Winston Churchill Recommends The Siesta, from Michael Hyatt’s blog

12. Lucid Dreamers Bring Us A Step Closer to ‘Dream Reading’ from io9

13. Can’t sleep? Persephone Magazine recommends tea.

14. Your Mother Was Right: If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep You’re Going To Get Sick, from Jezebel

15. Segmented Sleep: A Cure For Modern Ills? from The Society Pages

16. The Sleepiest (American) States: Which American states are the most sleep deprived? from BuzzFeed

17. Some people have internal clocks longer than 24 hours, from OMG Facts

18. Parenting A Short Sleeper, from The Well Rested Family

19. Where Children Sleep: James Mollison’s Poignant Photographs

20. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

21. 10 Drinks That Help Your Sleep.

22. And in depressing news, Study Suggests a Link Between Sleeping Pills, Early Death from WSJ

23. Is It More Difficult To Sleep If You Exercise At Night? from MunFitnessBlog

24. Have you ever been THIS tired? pictures of napping cute things from Buzz Feed

25. 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Hibernation from Discover

26. The Terror of Sleep Paralysis, from Unplug the TV

27. The Myth Of The 8 Hour Sleep from BBC

The Trouble With Human Tails

A short while ago I was a participant in one of those circular ‘what-if’ conversations in which my friends and I considered what we’d put on our wishlist if we could have influenced the evolution of the human body which, lets face it, is a kluge. A work in progress. (And probably not in the right direction.)

One friend put her orders in for sharks’ teeth. Not for their pointiness and general fiersomeness, but for their ability to regrow after falling out. This would be very handy indeed.

By the time I was asked for my two pennies’ worth regarding anthropological improvements, all the good suggestions had been taken so I offered human tails. I suppose at the time I was imagining long, muscular tails reminiscent of a wallaby’s, the sort that would require extra holes in our trousers. (The logistics of clothing also came up.) Chairs and toilets would require a complete rethink, which would influence home design. On the upside, depending on the ‘dexterity’ of the tail, you might be able to wipe the coffee table down with a cloth shaped as a tail sleeve while at the same time dusting the bookshelf with your hands, or even reading a book.

photo by Terry Bain

As we had this conversation, a friend’s dog trotted past, and I suppose I might have been subconsciously inspired by this sight, to be honest. Because this little terrier was happy as Larry, and its tail wagged excitedly as it played with the kids on the grass.

This got me wondering whether tails would be under humans’ conscious control. A great wagging tail would be a true liability if we were at a funeral, say, not-so-secretly pleased that the bane of our lives had finally kicked the bucket. A dog’s emotions are so readily accessible just by observing its tail, which is the endearing thing about dogs, but would not be an advantage in human-world, where social smiling, appropriate hand gestures and faux confidence do wonders  in advancing status and greasing social cogs.

Of course, if you go back far enough in prehistory, our ancestors did have tails once, hence the ‘tail bone’.  It’s called the coccyx, which may come in handy for Scrabble. So stick that one up your sleeve for later. Also, some people are born with ‘soft tails’. (Nobody believed me at the time, and none of us had actually seen one in real life, but it would seem to be true.)

You’ve no doubt heard of people who experience ‘phantom pain’ in limbs which have been removed. An example in the news this week is a 57-year-old woman whose right hand was amputated after a car crash when she was 18.

[RN] has never had a right index finger: she was born with a congenital deformity that gave her only the rudiment of a thumb, immobile ring and middle fingers, and no index finger at at all. More than 35 years after the amputation, she feels pain in a phantom right hand, which has five—not four—fully mobile fingers.

from Discover Magazine

Since we live in a bizarre and wacky world, I’m wondering how many individuals suffer pain in a phantom tail. Surely there must be some, if not living now, over the course of history? Naturally, there would be many more instances of phantom tails if we actually had tails, because a good number of those would suffer amputations after unfortunate events.

So I’d probably go with the renewable teeth modification. Which, by the way, may not be so far fetched.

Related: The Science Of Human Tails from io9

Dumb Movie: ‘Smart People’

Recently I cancelled our Quickflix subscription. There are a lot of films on TV and they’re free. I have decided to watch a few of those.

Last week I recorded Smart People, and I think it was because:

1. I seem to be fascinated by stories about really clever people. See an earlier post: Films With Genius Nerds In.

2. I’ve enjoyed all of the films so far with Ellen Page in. (Juno, that roller derby one I can never remember the name of, and that one where she has revenge on an Internet paedophile.) Ellen Page is good in this film too — just as unpleasant as she needs to be.

3. Hell, there must’ve been a third reason. 

Overall, I was reminded of the film Sideways (2004) which I hated equally,despite its 7.7 rating on IMDb, and I’m sure its high rating is the only reason I watched that. (I trust the IMDb rating less and less. I need to find a prolific reviewer whose tastes match my own.)

Since I never seem to tire of moaning about this movie, despite watching it several years ago, Sideways is about two middle aged men who go on a road trip to a winery. Both of them are losers of the first order, but they do meet a couple of well-balanced, friendly women on their journey. By the end of the film, naturally (because women are sometimes like Chekhov’s gun, and need to be there for a reason), the more unpleasant of the two men has hooked up with one of the very pleasant and trusting women. I suspect the audience is supposed to feel happy about this, as we leave this story full of joy, uplifted for the future and the probable redemption of loser-man because he will most definitely be reformed by the nice, caring woman who was put on this earth to make his life better.

People don’t really change, though.

This is where I talk briefly about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, spoofed brilliantly by a video at Cracked.com. Next, over at Feminist Frequency you will find a thorough and thoughtful explanation of The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope in modern film. I say that post is excellent even though Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind happens to be one of my favourite films of all time. Again, the problem with this trope isn’t that it exists in the first place; rather, that it is so overdone.

Smart People (2008) is another Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie, though slightly less obviously so since the characters in this are older. Older characters are somewhat more jaded from the knocks they’ve endured in life but nevertheless, the woman will be far more balanced and sane than the male protagonist with whom she falls reluctantly in love.

In Smart People, it is Sarah Jessica Parker playing the ray of sunshine who comes into the life of Lawrence, a pompous curmudgeon of a literature professor.

I have discovered something about my own tastes of late: while I enjoy films in which a regular character makes his/her way through unusual circumstances, perhaps encountering difficult characters along the way, I really don’t like films in which we are stuck with an unpleasant protagonist negotiating his/her way through (what should be) fairly ordinary circumstances. I don’t mind so much when unpleasant characters get their comeuppance. But so often they don’t. They are redeemed. By finding new love in their lives.

There is nothing likeable about the long-time widowed Lawrence (Dennis Quaid), though I suppose some viewers may appreciate the way he is rude to people in general. I can find rudeness funny, but only if it’s what I’d like to say to unpleasant people, but don’t. In this case, the rudeness of Lawrence is unjustified, which borders on cringe comedy. I don’t like cringe. I don’t like to see innocent people crushed for no reason, with no comeback, unless they’re killed brutally, of course, which is why I love No Country For Old Men.

Lawrence Wetherhold is such an unpleasant character that after insulting a parking warden he tries to climb over a high fence to retrieve a briefcase which is locked inside his car, which has been impounded. He falls.

In hospital he meets a great catch of a woman by any standards, because Janet (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) plays a single woman in her thirties, who happens to be an attractive (insert predictable horse joke), level-headed, smart ER doctor, who manages to be friendly even in the face of boldfaced rudeness from Lawrence and his very intelligent but emotionally stunted daughter (Page).

Predictably, Lawrence and Janet do not hit it off at first, but in their first scene together they are depicted to have something in common (word-wit and a love of language), so we know, without a doubt, that these two are going to be together by the end of the film, and that Lawrence is going to be improved and cheered by this new woman in his life.

I’m not sure it works the other way around. Because the plot really, really falls apart for me when first, a grown man can’t figure out how to work a condom, and two, when a woman who is obviously in her late thirties (and long past her peak fertile years) happens to fall pregnant after a single rubber malfunction. Not only that, but it doesn’t cross her mind to make use of an emergency contraceptive, despite the fact that she is a medical professional. (I’m sure the frequency of this plot point in films contributes to The Yoga Effect.)

When smart women do dumb things in movies, I sigh. But for every Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope there is the male equivalent — a sad sack of a man who can’t pull his own way out of the doldrums. I wonder if male viewers are getting equally tired of seeing him? I mean, men are more capable than movies make them out to be sometimes.

Of course, this is what the film Smart People is about: smart people doing dumb things or, more frequently, really unpleasant things. The smart man does the unpleasant things; the smart woman does the dumb things. This doesn’t ring true because it’s the smart woman in this story who has all the most intelligent and insightful lines.

In real life, too, smart people do screw up. I recently listened to a Freaknomics podcast about this issue, transcript here, in which Stephen Greenspan talks about how he lost a lot of money to a Ponzi scheme despite the fact that he is an economist with the specialty of ‘social incompetence’. 

Perhaps this smart-people-dumb-things storyline is just one of those situations that happens in real life but which, for me, does not make for a satisfying plot.

Literary Cats

literary cat

mockingbird cat

Click on image for The 10 Best Reviews of this book collected by The Hairpin

Here’s one I’ve actually read. Click for my review on Goodreads.

Related Links:

My favourite cat video: