One Southern Word: Ratback

A few years ago, there was an upsurge of interest in “how to talk Southern”.

You could buy books on the language, maybe listen to podcasts.

They’d teach you things like the Southern definition of “ah”.

In case you’ve forgotten, “ah” (in Southern-speak) has two meanings. In one sense, it refers to yourself as a first-person singular pronoun. In another, it’s the organ of sight. As in:

“Ah think ah’ve got somethin’ in mah ah.”

So far, so good. Lots of folks were dispensing wisdom such as this. Some of them were pretty good. Others were flashy phonies and wannabes. How to tell the difference?

I worked out a pretty good test. Whenever anyone began posturing and pontificating about my native tongue, I’d ask that person to define the Southern word “ratback” — and to use it correctly in a sentence.

Mostly I’d get blank stares. “Don’t you mean fatback?” “No, I mean ratback.” “Well, I know what fatback is, but ratback — not so sure.”

We true Southerners know, of course, that “ratback” is a definite statement of one’s intention, having gone somewhere, to return at once and without delay.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger had played his Terminator character as a Southern gentleman, that cyborg wouldn’t have stomped around snarling “I’ll be back.”

Instead he’d have said, “Don’t go ‘way — I’ll be ratback.”

Thus concludes our April lesson in how to talk Southern. You’re welcome.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

Three Words: Another Think Coming (or is it “Thing”?)

Can common usage of a common word like “thing” be wrong — even when it’s grammatically correct?


This question pesters people like me, worrying as we do about whether grammar “rules” should be prescriptive or descriptive.

For some time lately, I’ve been hearing the expression “another thing coming”. As in:

“If Hawkeye thinks it’ll be easy to pilot that stealth bomber, he’s got another thing coming.”

(Which raises the question: What other thing? But that’s a different story.)

The original expression, which I’ve heard all my life, is “another think coming”. As in:

“If that she-devil thinks she’s woman enough to take my man, she’s got another think coming!”

There’s a lot to like in the earlier, original wording (with “think” rather than “thing”). A purist might object that it’s grammatically incorrect. But that’s the point: It deliberately flouts the rule that says “think” is a verb, never a noun.

This calculated rule-breaking makes the expression fun, witty, and irreverent. It’s a linguistic tweak of someone’s smug nose.

What caused the original wording to change from “think” to “thing”? Or rather, who caused it?

For all I know, it may have been a mere slip of the tongue by some broadcaster, or by a popular actor or singer. One such eggcorn is all it takes, these days, to turn language on its head.

But my cynical alter ego suspects it may have been some humorless copy editor. Perhaps some such miscreant, while “correcting” someone else’s already correct writing, said, “Hey, ‘think’ doesn’t make any sense here. Surely it’s supposed to be ‘thing’!” One self-important grammar cop at a major news outlet or publishing house is also all it now takes.

Either way, the damage was done: We sucked the life right out of a fun, perfectly sensible way of speaking, turning it into something insipid.

Besides being bland and boring, it’s really “another thing coming” that makes no sense. Because in the event described, there is no “thing” en route: It’s a rethinking the speaker predicts, one soon to be forced by dawning reality.

Back to our original question: Is either of these usages (“think” or “thing”) wrong?

Well, “think” isn’t strictly grammatical in such a context. That doesn’t matter: Idiomatic expressions are not supposed to be grammatical. They’re supposed to mean something — and this one does.

“Another thing coming” isn’t wrong either. At least not from any technical standpoint. It breaks no laws of grammar or syntax.

But to Contrary Gary, accustomed as he is to the original usage, it just feels wrong. Language is what connects us and makes us human. Isn’t it always a mistake to impoverish our speech by repeating something we hear others say, without paying attention to what it means? When we miss the whole point of the intended saying?

Maybe I’m being too pedantic here. (It wouldn’t be my first time!) But if you think I’m about to stop, you’ve got another — oh, never mind! ≧◔◡◔≦

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

Two Words: A & Apart

The word “a” has several notable features.

It’s classified grammatically as an indefinite article. This means it refers to something of which there can be more than one.

A & Apart

For example, we’d speak of “a” tall building because there are lots of tall buildings. But we’d say Burj Khalifa (in Dubai) is currently “the” world’s tallest building. Here we use the definite article (“the”) since there can be only one tallest.

(Incidentally, I didn’t know which was the world’s tallest building until after pausing to look it up. I stopped following the skyscraper Olympics after the Sears Tower beat out the Empire State Building, many years ago.)

It strikes me as quirky that the word “a” is “an” indefinite article, since in English there are two such articles — “a” and “an”. But we have only one definite article — “the” — so for us “the” is “the” definite article.

“A” also is a prefix meaning “not”. That is, if you’re apolitical, you are not political. If you’re atypical, you are not typical.

One interesting wrinkle is the word “apart”. To be “apart” is to be not part of something. Simple enough.

But lately I’ve been seeing people write “apart” to mean that something or someone is a part of something else: “We’re all apart of one big human family!”

This sets my teeth on edge. (The word usage, I mean, not the sentiment about human oneness which I heartily applaud.) In such a case, “apart” is being used to express the exact opposite of what it actually means!

I’ve written before about eggcorns and auto-antonyms. This odd usage of “apart” seems to be both.

I’m tempted to say it’s “wrong”. But nowadays the dictionaries, being mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive, probably will vote me down. (To be honest, I haven’t checked.)

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

One Word: Antigram

An antigram is an expression formed by rearranging the letters of another expression to mean its opposite.

For example, “fluster” rearranges to spell “restful”. Other classic examples: “listen” = “silent”; “antagonist” = “not against”; “earliest” = “arise late”.

The word “antigram” is short for “anti-anagram” – an anagram being any word or phrase formed by rearranging the letters of another.

Readers of this blog know I’m an anagram junkie. The examples above suffer from two defects: (1) They’re not specific to this holiday season, and (2) they’re not mine. So let’s fix that with a mood-lifting antigram that’s timely.

Feeling shabby on a rainy day? Regretting something dumb? (We’ve all been there!) Simply take the letters in

“Shabby rainy day or dummy regret”

and rearrange them to spell

“May your days be Merry and Bright!”

There you have it! Our wish for you (i.e., from Cheri and me) this season and every season.

Merry and Bright!

One Word: So

Reader Paul Ruff notes that “so” is replacing “like” as the all-purpose, meaningless word with which to start a sentence.


We used to hear conversations such as:

“Like, I’m going skydiving tomorrow.”
“Like, wow, that’s awesome!”
“Like, without a parachute!”
“Isn’t that like, dangerous?”
“Like, I’m using Google Cardboard, silly.”

Today it seems we’re more likely to hear exchanges like this:

“So, are you coming to the company picnic?”
“So when is it?”
“So it’s next weekend.”
“So, do you mean this coming weekend or the one after that?”

For some reason, “so” doesn’t bother me as much as “like” in this context. It still annoys me, though.

“So” is a contraction, similar to “and” or “but”.

It isn’t strictly wrong, in English, to open a sentence with a contraction. But they should be used this way, if at all, only cautiously and sparingly.

What we definitely don’t need are sentences that start with “so” by default. Where the word becomes synonymous with “uhh” or “well” or some similar placeholder.

There are some legitimate uses for the word as a sentence opener: “So what?” “So long!” Recently I saw a bumper sticker that read: “So many cats; so few recipes!”

DISCLAIMER: No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


One Word: “If” by Bread

“If” by Bread is one of those songs where the lyrics can make your head explode – if you think too hard.

Songs like that, of course, we aren’t supposed to think about. We’re supposed to turn off our brains and let the words wash over us.

Mostly, I do just that. Bread’s “If” is a beautiful song. It’s on my iPod, which means I love it. The only songs I keep there are songs I love; life’s too short.

Writer/editor that I am, I don’t go around dissecting the wording of everything I hear. That’s a hat I can put on and take off at will. Otherwise, being me would quickly get tiring.

But surely (I sometimes think) when Bread’s front-man, David Gates, wrote and recorded that song, he must have realized how nonsensical its lyrics are. How jangling, how self-contradictory! What was he thinking?

If the goal of a song/poem is to make sense, “If” is a monumentally badly written song! Let’s take a closer look:

Painting with Words

The song opens:

“If a picture paints a thousand words
then why can’t I paint you?
The words would never show
the you I’ve come to know.”

For starters, then, our singer alludes to the well-known saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. This saying’s point is that words are hopelessly inadequate to express things that only pictures can convey.

But having said this, he expresses dismay and confusion at his inability to “paint” his beloved – with words! To his “why can’t I paint you” I want to yell in reply, “You just explained why, dummy! It’s because a thousand words can’t say what one picture can. Did you already forget?”

(Let’s disregard the fact that these “one word” essays of mine promote an opposing thesis: Sometimes one word can paint a thousand pictures. Depends on the subject.)

Painting with Non Sequiturs

Moving along. Gates continues:

“If a face could launch a thousand ships
then where am I to go?”

To which I reply “Huh?” His “Where to go?” question seemingly has nothing to do with the fact that a face (presumably that of his beloved) can launch a thousand ships.

It’s a bit like asking, “If an ant can lift ten times its own weight, then why is grass green?” An “if” should have something to do with its subsequent “then”. Here, they don’t. (The technical term for this mismatch is non sequitur.)

I Don’t Wanna Be with You?

Then Gates completely loses control of his material:

“There’s no one home but you.
You’re all that’s left me to.”

What first bothered me about this verse was Gates’s awful grammar. By “all that’s left me to” he clearly means “all that’s left to me.” Within reason, I’m fine with flouting grammatical rules to make poems rhyme, or prose flow better. (I do this myself.) Here, though, the broken syntax is too extreme, too jangling, for my taste.

But the real problem here isn’t word order. It’s what the words, regardless of sequence, actually say. Let’s brace ourselves:

Our singer is complaining about being home alone with his indescribably beautiful, Helen-of-Troy-like goddess of a lover! If he had his way, there’d be someone else there instead. Or at least, there’d be someone else with them. Or lots of someone elses; Gates doesn’t say. Maybe he’s into threesomes.

Whatever he means, doesn’t matter. In the context of the song, this is just wrong!

Here’s a romantic tip, guys: Don’t serenade the object of your affections by bellyaching that you’d rather not be home alone with her. That you’d rather be anywhere else, with anyone else!

That attitude won’t get you to first base – or any other base.

You sure won’t catch me complaining about the alone-time I get to spend with my beloved Cheri. We go out of our way to be in our own little world, just us.

In other parts of the song, Gates sounds as if he wants that with his own sweetie. But here his words indicate he’s, well, conflicted at best.

With his next couplet, Gates tries to get the song back on track:

“And when my love for life is running dry
you come and pour yourself on me.”

We can perhaps forgive this metaphor for being on the florid-and-torrid side. At least it holds together. Which is more than we can say for what comes next!

Of Time, Place, and Possibility

Gates concocts his most fantastic reason yet for not sticking around with his supposed beloved:

“If a man could be two places at one time I’d be with you
tomorrow and today, beside you all the way.”

This is still another case of an “if” having nothing to do with its (implied) “then”. Gates has trouble with these.

Here’s the problem: Being with someone “tomorrow and today” is not an example of  being “two places at one time”. Just the opposite: It’s a case of being in the same place at two different times!

It’s perhaps true that one can’t be in two places at one time. But it’s quite possible – in fact, it’s easy – to be with someone “tomorrow and today”. I do it all the time with Cheri!

In Gates’ case, it comes across as just one more excuse for spending as little time as possible with the woman he’s supposedly wooing. Does he really imagine she won’t notice his ambivalence?

The remaining lines strike me as pretty good:

“If the world should stop revolving
spinning slowly down to die
I’d spend the end with you,
and when the world was through
then one by one the stars would all go out
then you and I would simply fly away.”

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

One Word: Rudyard Kipling’s “If —”

Could Rudyard Kipling’s “If—” perhaps be the longest English poem ever written about a single one-syllable word?

Before discussing this, let me confess: Yes, I know how strange a question like this must make me seem, to my beloved readers!

Who frets about stuff like this, anyway?


The question isn’t important. But like lots of unimportant questions, it interests me. There are plenty of long poems with long titles, and short poems with short titles. I’ve even seen poems with titles considerably longer than the poem itself. (And many poems don’t have titles.)

Certainly there are long poems with much higher ratios of poem length to title length. Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene has around 36,000 lines, and I’ve heard nothing to suggest that that’s the longest English poem.

Going beyond English, the Mahabharat (in Sanskrit), with around 220,000 lines, may be the world’s longest poem. It was written in 18 sections, by several authors, from 900 to 500.

All I’m saying about Kipling’s “If—” is that I’m unaware of any other poem that long, with a title that short. That has to count for something! (I’m counting this, by the way, as a two-letter title, disregarding the punctuation dash.)

Kipling wrote the poem in 1895 and published it in 1910, in a collection of his prose and poetry called Rewards and Fairies. He explains that it was inspired by the military exploits of Leander Starr Jameson.

The poem takes the form of advice to the poet’s son, John. It has four verses of eight lines each, for a total of 36 lines – 291 words in all.

You’ve all read and heard the poem. It’s the one that starts out:

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”…

and ends:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
  With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
  And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.”

“If—” has spawned lots of parodies. I’ve chuckled many times at a poster that reads: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs – maybe you don’t understand the seriousness of the situation!”

Kipling’s “If—” isn’t the only poem with that title. There’s also the song “If” by the Sixties soft-rock group Bread. A song is – or can be – a poem. At least the lyrics can.

The Bread song/poem is less than half as long as Kipling’s poem. It has its own features of interest, which I may discuss later.

I haven’t checked to see whether there are any novels or short stories titled “If”. But how could there not be?

At one time, there was a science fiction pulp magazine titled “If”.

It’s an open-ended word, pregnant with possibilities and rife with uncertainty. This makes it extremely versatile.

Can anyone think of a poem with a one-letter title?

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

One Word: 101

As a number, 101 is often assigned to the first, most basic course in a college-level subject. Statistics 101. Political Science 101. Composition 101.

For this reason, it also has become, in English, a word – not just a number. It’s now a colloquial way of referring to an idea so basic that it should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about the topic under discussion.

Say you’re a criminal-law attorney. Always find out whether the cops who arrested your client read him his “Miranda rights” That’s “defense strategy 101”.

Say you’re a lab researcher. Be sure to design your experiments in such a way that others can replicate them. That’s “scientific method 101”.

Say you’re haggling over the price of something you want to buy. Let the seller know you’ll walk away from any deal you consider unfair. That’s “negotiation tactics 101”.

(This last one is tough! I long ago gave up trying to bluff my way to a good deal. The only times I get one are when I really am prepared to walk away. My “tells” are too many and too obvious!)

I call “101” in this sense a word because it’s functioning here as an adjective. It has no numerical connotations that I can see. In this context, there isn’t any “102” or “201” as there might be in a real academic course sequence.

Come to think of it, why don’t they call it “Statistics 1” or “PolySci 1” or whatnot? Maybe “101” just sounds sexier?

As a number (and not merely a word), 101 is often used in the titles of books or magazine articles: “101 Ways to Use Baking Soda”; “101 Work-at-Home Businesses”; etc.

I read recently that “101” became popular in such titles because this conveys the idea of extra value. The author didn’t stop at the round number 100, but forged forward with more.

Misleading Marketing 101

There’s thus the idea of “piling it on”. Speaking of which, I recently noticed a marketing misuse of “101” that I must protest:

The grocery chain Kroger carries a store brand called Simple Truth. This began as their line of organic foods. Once they got us all accustomed to equating “Simple Truth” with “organic”, they started applying the label to all kind of inorganic stuff as well. (No fanfare; no announcement of the [bait and] switch.)

Kroger, however, still wants its customers to think Simple Truth products don’t contain bad stuff like pesticides and synthetic preservatives. They’ve therefore plastered their displays with signs proclaiming these products “Free From 101 artificial ingredients and preservatives”.

The slogan (pictured below) has the “Free From artificial blah-blah” in dark green type, arranged in such a way that that’s what the eye naturally follows. The “101” is significantly lighter, and off to the side. If someone notices it, it’s ambiguous: It suggests “this is basic stuff” and “we’re going the extra mile”.


But not to fret! There’s a website where Simple Truth actually lists 101 ingredients (like high-fructose corn syrup) they pledge not to put in our food.

What’s wrong with this? Well, there are literally thousands of toxic chemicals that our government allows in food, in “safe” amounts. Lots of these haven’t been adequately tested. Even if they were, there’d be no way to test all the weird ways these combine in our bodies. To avoid them, you have to eat organic food, which by definition excludes them all.

Every product on every grocery-store shelf is “free” from at least 101 chemical additives. This means nothing, since that very product could still contain thousands of other toxins.

If Simple Truth products didn’t contain artificial ingredients, they’d be boasting about it. Kroger is selling inorganic products while trying to make them seem organic through trick labeling.

Maybe they learned the trick in Deceptive Marketing 101.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

One Word: Whisk

Casting about for a write-worthy word, my eyes fell on a whisk broom.

“Whisk” – it occurs to me – is a wonderful word. It’s short (I like that), familiar (I like that, too), and vivid, by which I mean it conjures up a bright mental image. (I particularly like that.)


Perhaps best of all, it doesn’t seem – for now – to be overworked, worn-out, trite, or too trendy.

It can therefore add punch to our speech and writing. Assuming we use it sparingly and in moderation.

Words like “whisk” are like salt: They can add flavor, ideally by intensifying the flavor that’s already there. Overdo them, though, and they ruin the dish.

To whisk something is to move it quickly from one place to another, or in a particular direction. To whisk something away, for instance.

It also means to stir rapidly, as when we use a kitchen whisk to whisk eggs or whisk batter.

“Whisk” is our modernized version of the Middle English word “wisk”. According to Merriam-Webster, the latter is of Scandinavian origin.

Even today, there’s a laundry detergent called Wisk. Launched in 1956 by Unilever, it was the first liquid laundry detergent.

Those of us with really long memories still try (with mixed success) to forget the Wisk “ring around the collar” TV commercials. These ads shamed wives who let their husbands leave for work with hard-to-treat collar stains. Stains supposedly removable with Wisk.

Did those ads sell a ton of Wisk? You bet they did! Thank God, though, that any such campaign would be whisked off the air today. It would be rightly reviled on social media, on account of its degrading stereotyping and emotional blackmail.

I know, I know: I love to mock “political correctness”. That’s something I was doing even before it became politically correct to do so.

But good riddance to “ring around the collar”!

Wisk was relaunched and rebranded in 2010 by Sun Products, after Unilever sold it. Today it boasts of its “stain fighting science” or something like that.

Can’t help wondering, though: Does it still whisk out collar stains? Maybe I’ll try that myself – if Cheri ever lets me near the laundry room.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)

[MAILBAG] — Portmanteau Words

My recent article on portmanteau words prompted some noteworthy responses.

What’s a Late Lunch / Early Dinner?

From reader Linda Helms:

“Rather than submit a portmanteau, I beg for one to be created; that is, the afternoon equivalent of brunch. I for one sometimes put off lunch until it’s so late that it becomes early supper (dinner to you yankees). But lupper, linner, sunch and dunch just don’t sound all that tasty.”

Great points all, Linda. Clearly we need such a word!


My thoughts:

(1) My vote goes to “linner”. I think we’d quickly get used to it, after which it would sound just as appetizing as brunch!

(2) It’s my guess that when “brunch” first was coined, it didn’t sound “all that tasty” either. We just became accustomed to it, after hearing it for a while.

(3) Apparently there are others who already prefer “linner”: On various websites where folks discuss these alternatives, some commenters report hearing that word more and more. This strictly anecdotal evidence (from my extremely limited sampling) suggests to me that it’s gaining at least some currency.

(4) That said, there are entries at for “lupper”, “linner”, and “dunch”. So they’re all being used, to some extent, in slang. They all seem to refer to a meal between lunchtime and dinnertime, one that may or may not take the place of either or both.

(5) Of these three, the only one listed at all in is “dunch”. Its primary meaning, however, seems to be a kind of jab or kick. Only in a secondary sense is it defined as a late lunch-early dinner.

(6) “Sunch” already is taken, and with distinctly sexual meanings. I say “meanings” (plural) because Urban­ lists it twice – once as a standalone word, and again as part of a longer phrase. The former strikes me as bland, compared to many “hot topics” they already bandy about on TV shows like “The View”. The latter probably belongs in the better-not-to-know category!

(7) Some have proposed alternatives such as “luner” (lunch-dinner) and “betwinner” (between lunch and dinner). But the former sounds too much like “lunar” while the latter looks too much like “bet winner”. I’m tempted to suggest “dutch”, but that is too easily confused with “going dutch” or “dutch treat”. (Or “dutch chocolate”, which suggests dessert rather than a regular meal.)

The word you’re seeking, Linda, we do indeed need. Let’s hope a clear winner emerges.

Other Replies

To Linda’s question above, Dev Samaddar says:

“How about suppunch? That’s got to knock you out for sure.”

Indeed! To your suggestions (and Linda’s) may I add plunch, splunch, and spunch?

Of these, I’d prefer “spunch” as it seems most closely to follow the structure of “brunch”. It takes the “s” and “p” sounds from supper, combining them with the “unch” from lunch. It also avoids including a whole word (lunch). The whole-word inclusion doesn’t keep something from being a portmanteau, as it would if all the words were whole. But it’s best avoided.

To my ear, “suppunch” sounds a bit too much like “sucker punch”. “Spunch” seems to avoid that problem. I could imagine myself telling a friend, “My meal schedule was so off-kilter today, I could only manage brunch and spunch.”

To my question about favorite portmanteau words, Dev also writes:

“You mentioned spork, so may be you will like chork that will be handed out by Panda Express soon (or perhaps already is). Chork = ch(opstick + f)ork as you probably guessed.

“There are Bennifer, Brangelina and TomKat… 1 & 3 are no longer couples though.”

Reader Nilou writes:

“Skort (mix of skirt and short) is a popular one with Tennis players.”

Good one, Nilou! One I hadn’t heard before.

Reader Janelle writes:

“The meal between lunch and dinner is called tea in England.”

Great point, Janelle. It isn’t a portmanteau word, but it serves the purpose insofar as it’s a valid descriptive label.

Linda, however, wants a portmanteau that would correspond to  “brunch”. At the moment there seems to be no universally accepted one. It’s something that would be welcomed by those of us who love symmetry!

Cheri W. Matthews writes:

“Did you notice if you closed your eyes and said portmanteau it sounds like portman (or porter) tow (as in suitcase)?”

No, but that’s a great observation. It’s not entirely accidental, either.

The original word (the one referring to luggage) is French, from “porter” (carry) and “manteau” (mantle — in the sense of cloak). It referred to a court official who carried a prince’s cloak, and came by extension to refer to the bag or case in which the cloak was carried. So a portmanteau was, in fact, something that a porter towed. I suppose the “teau” rhyming sound is coincidental, but the overall structure is not.