Smashwords Interviews


The indie ebook publisher, Smashwords, is offering a new feature to its authors — an interview template.  An author writes answers to questions about their life and their writing, and can publish these to their Smashwords profile page.  A nifty free marketing tool, indeed.  Check out my interview related to my novel, Blind Tasting, if you’re curious.

Smashwords has also announced a new distribution channel for their ebooks — FlipMart in India. A big market apparently, as FlipMart is described as the Amazon of India. Okay, writers, everyone get to work on your next project!    🙂

Posted in Announcement, ebooks, self-publishing | 2 Comments

Seman-tech Changes?


 We know that languages change over time. Some of these changes are shifts in word usage and word senses. The world of technology changes rapidly, and it’s no surprise that word senses might reflect that. Three English nouns have caught my eye recently with respect to this topic: space, culture and brand. Go to any English dictionary and you will observe a multitude of senses for each of these words. They have what linguists call high polysemy, or many meanings. In the current tech world there are meanings for these words which I haven’t found in dictionaries, maybe because they are so newly emergent, maybe even within just the past four or five years.

For example, it’s common in tech circles now to hear or read about current funding levels in social space, or vendors who are leaders in a certain technology space. Space in these contexts is a sphere of activity, but, something more fluidly defined than an industry and less specific than a product or product line. An area of innovation might be a good paraphrase.

New word senses are often metaphoric extensions of earlier senses. So, which prior meaning of space is this new sense related to? I don’t think its connection is to a physical expanse (he liked the wide open space of the desert) nor to the freedom of opportunity (the company gave its employees space to explore new ideas). More likely it’s related to the mathematical, algorithmic sense used in, e.g., search space, which refers to a set of possible points, or solutions, answers, from which one or some will be selected. A space in the new sense implies problem solving, building and/or discovering solutions to a problem in the context of other solutions that may exist or are being invented/discovered by competitors. For now, this sense of space seems to exist within the tech community, but, will it expand to other domains of enterprise, e.g., government, entertainment, law?

Consider culture. We speak of ancient cultures, of youth culture, pop culture and corporate culture. The latter three senses specify traits for group membership, being young, artful, or business savvy. In the world of techies, culture has taken on a narrower sense, referring to the attitudes and behaviors specific to individual organizations — not the business world at large. (Okay, there is startup culture, which is broader than one company but not inclusive of all business.)

Job postings seek candidates who will be a good fit with the firm’s culture. It’s a good choice for what’s being described; the boundaries between work life and personal life are blurred in most startups (and also in fast-paced larger tech firms),

Some big companies used to refer to themselves as a family, employees would be joining a family. The term family suggests a roster of specific individuals with respective roles. It implies long term, stable commitments and relationships. The current use of culture doesn’t imply the long term or specific people, but it implies a set of attitudes and behaviors that are to be embraced by the participants.

Brand is no longer just a marker or id for a manufactured product, it has become a shorthand reference to the skills, actions, services, personality and other publicly perceived traits of individuals. The rise of social media and the ability to self-publish and self-advertise undoubtedly led to the emergence of this new sense of brand. This new sense of brand can also refer to whole groups or companies, but it’s not referring to specific products, but rather characterizing the reputation, the public face, of the group.

Interestingly, culture’s new sense — unlike brand’s new sense — cannot be singularized. There is no culture of one, there must be a group, probably more than two individuals? But, you can speak of his or her brand, as well as their brand. When you refer to his or her culture, you are jumping back to the broader reference to a whole country or society. It’s a different sense of the word.

As new situations and new activities arise, people will find a way to think about them, talk about them, name them. This is a big driver of how word senses change. Car referred to railway carriages in the early nineteenth century in the United States, but later came to refer to automobiles. Today, the railway sense is more restricted and usually occurs with additional modifiers (box car, dining car, sleeping car, quiet car). The dominant sense of car today is automobile, not surprising given the number of autos in the world and the huge role they play in everyday life.

Finally, the noun phrases full stack and full stacker offer interesting examples of word sense evolution. I read a job posting for a tech startup that was looking for a full stacker. Another posting had a job for a full stack programmer. (Note: tech startup job boards are a treasure trove of molten semantics – language change in motion!) When I first read these phrases, I wondered whether they referred to the call stack of a computer program (a data structure that manages the subroutines of an executing program). The details of the call stack are usually automatically handled in high-level programming languages, so application developers don’t manually work with them. So, I assumed a full stacker was a programmer with the chops to tweak the call stack, someone comfortable and experienced writing internal operating system code as well as user-oriented code modules. Screw up your operating system code and you will have a really bad day.

The phrases turn out to be richer and more malleable than my initial guess. The stack metaphor has been extended to mean whole product solutions or implementations. Instead of being composed of runtime subroutines, the new stack is composed of software modules which could include different libraries, classes, databases, APIs, operating system, etc., which taken together deliver a software solution. A lot of this is web-centric obviously; for example, the term stack is used contrastively with glue in comparing programming frameworks for the scripting language PHP. A stack framework is one-stop shopping, with all packages included, a glue framework requires/enables a programmer to mix and match their libraries to build an application.

On Quora someone asked for the meaning of full stack programmer and got two answers; the first defined it as a techie generalist who could switch hit among technical tasks, and the second defined it more specifically (and more accurately) as a programmer who can code both server side and web side components.

Yet another sense of full stack refers to electric guitar amplification – an amplifier with two speaker cabinets is called a full stack; in contrast, an amplifier with just one speaker cabinet is called a half stack. It seems doubtful this usage is the origin for the newly-emergent programming sense, and I bet no one wants to be called a half-stack programmer!

My favorite definition for full stack web developer — someone able to turn a loose pile of electrons into a fully operating and styled website.  It goes with a nerd merit badge. And what’s the graphic on the badge? A stack of pancakes. ; )

Will these new senses spread to new contexts? For example, might skilled, multi-tasking assistants to government officials or executive managers start being called full stackers? It probably depends on the metaphoric alignments, which features of a given sense become more salient, or less so. The world keeps changing and language responds to this, words need breathing room. Newly emerging senses may not be wholly consistent at their outset, people may read or hear them (or use them) without being certain of their meaning, making guesses. But, we have to agree on basic senses in order to communicate. Really pretty amazing how it all works.

Posted in Internet, language and social media, language change, Meaning Change, Word Usage | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vamp 24: Tricky Conversations


Continue reading

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Vamp 23: Rendezvous


vamp_smallDean has the taxi drop him at the turnoff to the private road. It’s dark now and a lone man walking will be less noticeable than a lit cab pulling up to the house. Despite his fatigue from days of chronic vigilance on the run, he notes the significant affluence of his surroundings. Some of it must be true old North Shore money, and some of it probably belongs to the cohort of Boston entrepreneurs who built the early tech firms along Route 128. The homes are grand Victorians and Colonials, some with widows walks and towers.

Dean reaches the end of the road — the great stone mansion by-the-sea, dead ahead, bears the address Sam gave him. He now concludes that Sam is from a seriously monied background. Why would such a girl of privilege take a job as an office admin with a tiny startup? When he first hired her, she’d seemed like a sweet, efficient kid. Then, fleeing for his life, his instincts had pointed to her as the one to trust. His instincts had not steered him wrong. She has become his lifeline.

He walks around to the right of the majestic house, his eyes continuously searching for anyone who might be watching. The pounding surf beyond the sea wall is even louder here. Harder to hear soft footsteps approaching he warns himself. He is reassured to see the stone carriage house Sam mentioned and, sure enough, there is a gardening shed visible beyond it. He goes past the carriage house and continues to the shed, enters, and finds the key in a gardening glove. Thank you, Sam! He follows a brick path past gnarled old oaks and a rambling wall of woody shrubs, bare and dormant for the winter. The brick path leads him to the door at the back of the main house. As he fits the key into the lock of this unfamiliar residence, he feels suddenly uneasy, like some low-life home intruder. The key clicks and the massive door opens.

With only a flashlight to guide him — anyone watching will see a lighted window — he makes his way through an old-fashioned service entryway and into the immense butler’s pantry where Zaira had revived her cousin Joska with shot glasses filled with human blood.

~

Lieutenant Barton had missed Dean’s taxi. Barton had gone directly to the stone mansion after his conversation with Stephanie Nichols; he’d rung the front doorbell and, when no one answered, he’d walked around the side, noted the carriage house and briefly looked for a way to open its door. Then he’d left. He returned after dark and parked his Crown Victoria on the shoulder of the main road where he could watch traffic coming and going on the private way.

The local Salem cab is easy to spot. It appears to have four passengers; one, a male youth, is riding shotgun with the cabbie. Barton loses sight of the cab as it turns onto the private way, but he notes its departure a couple of minutes later as it comes back onto the main road. Only the cabbie is in it. Lieutenant Barton decides to wait a little longer.

~

“Sam! It’s incredible!” Rina surveys the elegant marble foyer in deep admiration as Sam quickly closes the front door behind her and locks it.

“So this is your uncle’s house?” Gil asks, making an effort to mask his own awe.

Sandor glances disapprovingly at Sam. She ignores her cousin and leads them to the kitchen; they are carrying bags of takeout — spicy-fragrant Asian dishes. Sam switches on the light as they enter the room. Through the archway that connects to the butler’s pantry they see a tired man with brown hair and a beard. Despite everything that’s happened, he manages a smile and gets up from the table. “It’s me, guys. Sorry for the melodrama. It’s been a pretty strange week. Sam, I’m really indebted to you for this.”

“Hey.” Gil nods a greeting to Dean.

Dean approaches him and places a hand on Gil’s shoulder. “I owe you an apology. I made some serious miscalculations.”

There are many things that cross Gil’s mind to say in response to this; he looks down and replies, “Maybe if I’d interviewed Evan, from the start, I — we, might have seen a red flag. He’s truly creepy.”

“Serious miscalculations.” Dean repeats the phrase.

Rina and Sandor, who barely met Dean before his disappearance in New York, look on, wondering what they should do.

“Did anyone see you come in?” Sam asks Dean as she begins to unpack the bags of food and lay them out on the table.

“I don’t think so. I had the cab drop me off up the road. This is quite the location, Sam. I hope it’s secure — for all of your safety, not just mine.” He sighs. “Things have really changed.” Dean looks keenly at Sam. “You’re certain that your uncle is okay with this arrangement? Won’t he be coming here soon?

“He’s out of the country. This will be fine.” She turns to her cousin. “Sandor come help me check the windows, make sure all the drapes are closed.”

When they are out of earshot of the others, Sam tells him, “Sandor, I apologize about the uncle business, but after all, I’m in guise, so that’s already a much bigger deception.”

“Yes, lies beget lies.”

“They cannot ever know the truth about us! You must understand this.”

Sandor glowers silently as they return to the kitchen. Sam holds Sandor’s arm a moment as she pulls two slender coffee thermoses from a cupboard. She then pulls an unmarked carton from a shelf, opens the top and pours a dark red liquid into one thermos, then the other. She speaks sharply to Sandor under her breath. “You must drink this and please eat sparingly of the food. Avoid the pickled ginger, it can give you terrible nightmares.”

Sandor moves away from the small thermoses. “I’m not hungry.”

“Sandor! You must drink this. We are facing unknown difficulties and will need to talk into the night. You won’t be any use without strength. Understand?”

Rina appears in the archway. “Is everything okay? Come eat something.”

Sandor picks up his thermos, screws the lid on discreetly, and follows Rina into the butler’s pantry.

“I’ll be right there,” Sam says. She lingers in the kitchen and pulls the cellphone from her pocket to review the twenty messages from Anatol. The news is bad.

They’ve gathered in the living room after devouring the Thai and Japanese takeout. The large picture windows are now covered by heavy velvet curtains, but the sound of the pounding Atlantic surf is still audible. Stunned, they listen to Dean describe his strange hostile meeting with Joel Anderson, his harrowing flight through Manhattan streets, hiding out incognito in flop motels, and finally, the terrible conclusion that his trusted friend is in league with Joel Anderson.

“You’re absolutely certain who that guy is, the one with your friend?” Gil asks.

“He’s the top spook at the agency, Gil. He reports to people at the highest level of government.”

Sandor, who has been web surfing on his laptop, shows the screen to Dean. “Patrick Slaughter. Is that he?”

Dean scans the digital image and bio. “Yes, unfortunately. That’s not a recent picture, but it’s him.” Dean covers his face with his hands. “What have I entangled us, BubbleTrendz, in?”

“But how come he would do cyber-extortion?” Rina asks. “Seems kind of small potatoes for such a politically powerful guy.”

Dean looks at Rina gravely. “The extortion stuff is only part of it.”

“The DOW lost over two thousand points today,” Sam tells them. “SEHK, I mean the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is down nine percent.”

“I can’t prove it yet, but I’m sure Joel’s gang is behind that,” Dean tells them vehemently. “It’s like they are detonating well-placed bombs in the global financial markets. They don’t have to blow up real buildings or people to create fear and chaos.” Dean looks squarely at his employees. “Joel Anderson didn’t care a rat’s ass about our pioneering social data marketing apps. He just wanted access to a big financial driver like Star.”  He adds, with a measure of self-reproach, “We worked really hard to win Star as a client. They were our breakthrough.” Dean looks Gil in the eyes.Your code made that happen. Star trusted us and I let them down, let all of you down. I got sucker-punched by Joel. It’s scary how smooth he was.” Dean adds quietly, “Perry Hinds got worse than sucker-punched is my guess.”

They are startled by the bell chime. Someone is at the front door. Dean looks sharply at Sam, “I need to disappear.”

She thinks quickly. “Upstairs — second room on the right. There’s a walk-in closet with long coats that will conceal you.”

As Dean races up the staircase, Sam adds, “There is also a balcony in that room through French doors. It would be tricky to climb down, but might be possible — if it comes to that.” She turns to the others, “Deep breaths, everyone. Hang out here and look natural, talk about something — computers, music, sports. I’ll deal with whoever is at the door.”

“What is there here to use as a weapon?” Sam sees the focused, determined look on Gil’s face.

“The candelabra!” Rina points to a large brass candle holder on the mantle. Gil rushes to the mantle and grabs it, hefting it, holding it firmly in his hands. It’s the most physically brazen act Sam has ever witnessed Gil perform.

She tries to reassure them. “Guys, it’s probably just a neighbor. I’ll be right back,”

Sam notes that Sandor is unconsciously twitching his fingers and his nails are beginning to sharpen up. She walks past him and whispers, “Your hands! Not yet.”  But, Sam begins to curl and uncurl her own fingers as she heads to the front door.

–  To be continued

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Word Jumbles #11


  • DIPARS
  • ERUSIFS
  • ETARING
  • ONORISE
  • REDSET

Solutions can be found on the Answers page.

Posted in Word Usage | 2 Comments

The Hidden Past of Words: English final -y


Consider the following list of everyday English words:  memory, happy, baby, crazy, victory, city, silly, puppy, army

For starters, they all end in -y and they can be grouped further as nouns (memory, baby, victory, city, puppy, army) or adjectives (happy, crazy, silly).  For the nouns, English speakers know that we form the plural by replacing the final -y with -ies. Is it the same -y that gets replaced in memories and babies? Probably yes according to the intuitions of most modern English speakers. However, memory’s -y and baby’s y have different origins.

The final -y of memory, victory, city and army is a nominal suffix whose origins come from Latin forms which Middle English acquired through Old French forms:  memory, victory (English) <- memorie, victorie (Anglo/Old-French) <- memoria, victoria (Latin),  city, army (English) <- cite, armée (Old French) <- civitas, armata (Latin).  Modern -y here corresponds to the -e suffix of Old French and to the -atus/-atum suffix of past participle forms of certain Latin verbs and to final -ia for certain Latin nouns.

The final -y of puppy and baby is a diminutive ‘pet name’ suffix which applies to not only these common nouns, but to personal names, e.g., Billy, Benny, Johnny.  The Online Etymological Dictionary mentions that the popularity of Robert (Bobby) Burns’ poetry led to widespread usage of this diminutive suffix with the common noun lad -> laddie, but this dictionary also points out the much earlier (14th century) occurrences of baby as a diminutive of babe, and puppy for pup.  Modern speakers may still discern the diminutive sense in modern dolly (a child’s toy doll) or mommy (mom/mother), but baby and puppy are now the unmarked cases, at least in American English.

The final -y of adjectives is a suffix which originally meant ‘characterized as’.  But, modern English speakers don’t analyze happy as ‘characterized by hap’ — happy is now a single unit of meaning. The history of this word is interesting. Hap, in fact, is the original root of happy and in Middle English it meant ‘chance, fate, fortune’.  Hap has become archaic in Modern English, still related to happenstance and haphazard. The formation of happy (hap + -y) took on the sense of luck, good fortune, but later replaced other terms (including gesaelig -> silly) to mean pleased, joyful. The original Old English word meaning happy survives as modern blithe. Note, though, how blithe’s usage has largely shifted from joy to a somewhat pejorative sense of nonchalance (his driving shows a blithe indifference to posted speed limits).

Silly has come a long way semantically from its origins.  Its core meaning apparently changed from ‘blessed’ to ‘pious’ to ‘innocent’ to ‘harmless’ to ‘pitiable’ to ‘weak’ to ‘feeble-minded’ in the course of a few hundred years.  What a semantic downgrade for the hapless lexeme! 🙂 Today it seems less harsh, mostly conveying the sense of non-seriousness, sometimes in a fun and whimsical way.  (Note: Old English gesaelig referenced above meant happy in the same sense of German selig, which translates as ‘blessed’, ‘blissful’.)

Where is modern-day final -y going? Some English dictionaries maintain a meaning distinction between the spellings hippy and hippie; hippy is an adjective that means ‘having wide hips’, hippie is a person with a certain (hip) outlook or lifestyle.  But other dictionaries now treat hippy and hippie as mere spelling alternates for a single noun. Ditto for yuppy and yuppie. (No one will confuse hippie/hippy with hipster, however!)

I’ll end this post with a few more examples of final adjectival -y.  The adjectives breezy, mighty, hasty,  tasty, angry, toasty convey a straightforward sense of ‘characterized by’ or ‘full of’.  They mean, respectively,  ‘characterized by’  a breeze, might, haste, taste, anger or toast (the verbal sense of ‘warming something’).

What about these y-ending adjectives:  haughty, sorry, feisty, merry, naughty, steady, busy?

For most English speakers the interpretation  ‘full of, characterized by’ is less clear here than for the preceding adjectives. Yet, haughty, feisty, naughty, steady also arose in the language by combining nouns with -y:  haught (‘high self-esteem’) + y, feist (‘small dog’) + y,  naught (‘nothing’) + y, stead (‘unwavering’) + y.  The earlier meanings of the nouns have changed and the ‘characterized by’ relationship is now more obscure. Haughtfeist and stead don’t appear in modern English in these original senses. Naught still means ‘nothing’, but the form combined with -y in Middle English to mean ‘needy’ and only later took on the sense of ‘wicked or morally bad’.  Feist’s originally meaning was ‘bad odor, fart’ and became associated later with lap dogs in the phrase feisting cur (‘stinking dog’) then shortened to feist to refer to a small dog — which has little to do with the modern meaning of  ‘aggressive, tough, plucky’.  Okay, maybe you know a tough little lapdog, or two.

For sorry, merry and busy, the etymologies are sarig (Old English ‘distressed’), myrge (Old English ‘agreeable, pleasing’), bisig (Old English ‘anxious, careful’). These adjectives are not the result of a base noun combining with a -y suffix, so perhaps it’s not surprising that these have indivisible meaning similar to modern happy. (Note: sorry is etymologically related to sore and not sorrow, although modern English speakers might feel a natural connection between sorry and sorrow.)

As babies entering the world, we don’t get to choose our parents or our first language. But we do learn the histories of our families, our parents and grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, through the stories they tell to us, through our interactions with them. Words aren’t able to tell us their stories directly, we just use them in the context we learn them in, taking their current meanings for granted. It’s how communication is possible. Yet traces of their often long and complex histories can be discerned in their present-day form and meaning if we, like beachcombers, pause to pick them up, turn them over, and study the clues.  Enjoy words!

Posted in etymology, history of language, language change, Meaning Change, Word Usage | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Trailers for Blind Tasting (audiobook edition) now on YouTube


Check out trailers for the audiobook version of Blind Tasting:

Trailer 1:  Immerse yourself in the tale of three geeks and a dog as they explore what is definitely not your ordinary wine trail. Set in Silicon Valley, Napa and Sonoma.

Trailer 2: Will sexual rivalries and romantic fallout derail the deviously clever wine antics of Cory and his friends?

Posted in audiobook trailer, audiobooks, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Glass, Bamboo, Curry


I was intrigued by a recent question posted at Quora about whether there is a bamboo ceiling in American corporate culture, parallel to the idea of a glass ceiling, but with reference to the experience of Asians’ efforts to become promoted to upper management levels in firms. The question is certainly an interesting and legitimate one to ask, but the language nerd in me is wondering whether here is a case of a newly productive phrase pattern in English. Thus, the metaphoric expression itself is the focus of this post.

I don’t know when glass ceiling first entered English, but I’m guessing it has been around for only about twenty years and has mostly been used to reference perceived obstacles to upper management promotions as these relate to females. The Quora discussion cites the writer Jane Hyun as the coiner of the expression bamboo ceiling. If so, this usage came into being around 2005. I’ve not read her book, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians, but the title seems inclusive of all Asians, not just women.

Consider the semantics of these two expressions. It would appear that ceiling has a constant meaning; it’s a metaphorical stand-in for a perceived set of complex social behaviors, some intentional, some unconscious, which create a barrier to promotion in the workplace for members of specific social groups. The metaphoric choice of ceiling supports the idea that there is hierarchy in the workplace and directionality is also used metaphorically in value judgements — moving up is a measure of success. Ceilings are then negative structures which impede further movement upwards. The modifier glass elaborates the metaphor; the barrier is invisible (not described by explicit rules) and clear (the barrier doesn’t hide the desirable level above to those seeking it, they can observe it without ever reaching it).

A bamboo ceiling appears to have altered the semantics of the original metaphor. Bamboo itself does not possess qualities of invisibility and clearness similar to glass, bamboo is a solid material.  Bamboo is being used to reference a social group, namely Asians. Is bamboo ceiling shorthand for bamboo glass ceiling? And why bamboo as the chosen attribute for this newly coined metaphor? Silk and tea also have associations to Asian cultures. Yet speakers of English immediately understand the metaphoric meaning.  Tea or silk ceilings would not be as effective. Perhaps one reason that bamboo is a good choice semantically is that the goal is to break such ceilings. Glass can be broken and so can bamboo, but it’s not apparent how you break silk or tea, for example. (Also, in another metaphoric extension of a physical barrier, curtain, there is bamboo curtain, presumably on the model of iron curtain.)

There was yet a third ceiling mentioned in the Quora commentary, the curry ceiling. Interestingly, the writer giving an answer on Quora pointed out that this expression is not quite appropriate for what it refers to. It refers to a situation in which Asian middle managers have upper management bosses who are Indian. So in this situation, curry is not identified with those seeking to break through some barrier, but is identified with members of a group who are already at the higher level within the organization. The metaphoric ceiling refers to a level in the hierarchy itself and not to a barrier to that level. That is also more consistent with a metaphoric use of curry, which is not a breakable substance, but rather a compositional substance. My impression is that curry ceiling is quite new to English and still in flux with its meaning. For instance, Quora discussants wondered about the nomenclature for social groups, stating that Indians are Asians.

The interesting point is that these examples — forming curry ceiling on the model of bamboo ceiling on the model of glass ceiling — illustrate metaphoric productivity in action in the language.  How productive can such a metaphor become?  Would certain usages align naturally with the barrier sense and others with the compositional sense? And, we haven’t even discussed a third metaphoric sense of ceiling which means limit, as in debt ceiling.  Here are some examples I came up. What would they refer to?

gray ceiling

green ceiling

wealth ceiling

style ceiling

svelte ceiling

blind ceiling

gene ceiling

Posted in Meaning Change, metonymy, social context of language, Word Usage | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Vamp 22: The Neighbor’s House


Dean has the cab drop him several blocks from the bar in Georgetown. Instinctively he pulls his baseball cap lower over his forehead to shield his eyes which are no longer hidden behind dark glasses. He thinks consciously about how he is walking and adds a slight sideways bob to his gait, not a characteristic motion of his normal stride. More camouflage is a good idea right now. In dismay he realizes that his seedy appearance is marked for the respectable urban neighborhood. It’s a preppy place full of young professionals in dark business clothes who are segueing from their day jobs as lawyers, lobbyists and Washington policy wonks into their high-octane nighttime social lives of conversing, competing and carousing with their peers.

Dean stops across the street from the designated rendezvous point, a tony-looking bar with large glass windows and a red brick facade. Dean stands in shadows so he’ll be harder to see from those glass windows, in case anyone is watching. The pub appears to be under the same management as the last time he was here a few years ago; the letters of its name still glowing in purple electric light above the entrance: Pro Bono.  Dean remembers that night with Philip. It was less than three years ago but it feels like a lifetime tonight.

Groups of young men and women continue to enter the bar across the street, but Dean doesn’t see Philip among them. It’s possible he’s there already. And if so, he’d wait at the bar, letting Dean find him. He’s on our team. That sentence from Philip is why Dean isn’t just walking straight into Pro Bono. The guy, Bernard,  in New York was a thug, an assassin. He wasn’t smart enough to be a covert agent working with Philip. Dean feels certain of this. So what’s Philip doing mixed up with Joel Anderson? Dean can think of no scenario that is reassuring. The worst thing is that he has now lost his window of time, Joel Anderson knows that Bernard didn’t kill him, that he escaped. And they know he’s called from a Washington D.C. phone booth within the past hour. The only thing in his favor, at least for now, is they’ll be looking for a guy with a shaved head wearing glasses.

Someone was probably sent to that phone booth right after he hung up. It’s dangerous to be here as well. Dean isn’t sure why he risked it, even in disguise. Is it because he still, irrationally, holds out hope that Philip can be his trusted friend? Is it because he’s hoping to somehow learn something important here by watching and waiting? A police cruiser drives slowly past him and Dean realizes he can’t stand there any longer without drawing attention to himself. The Georgetown police don’t want scruffy types loiterering about in a fashionable district like this.

He turns his coat collar up and walks down the block, glancing repeatedly across the street. A black town car pulls up in front of Pro Bono and a tall older man, dressed in a tailored black overcoat, gets out of the car. The man’s thick white head of hair seems vaguely familiar, perhaps a senator who’s been in the news?  The man waits for a companion who is getting out of the town car and Dean recognizes at once the sandy hair and thin pale figure of Philip. He turns away, glancing only peripherally at them from beneath the visor of his cap. They look around the street briefly and Dean imagines he sees Philip make a subtle hand signal to someone who isn’t visible on the street.

Dean feels a jolt of adrenalin and forces himself to take a long breath. This is no time to panic. He gets a better look at the older man’s profile and suddenly knows who the man is. It’s a terrible realization, given the situation here. He’s Philip’s boss — the head of the nameless agency that Philip works for.

It’s time to get out of there. Dean’s keen eyes now see the likely recipient of Philip’s hand signal. A broad-shouldered man in business clothes has just emerged onto the street from a narrow brick walkway two doors away from Pro Bono. The man is scanning the throngs of people walking along the street. Dean feels the adrenalin pouring through his body like white water rapids, the muscles in his legs are taut with power, his feet feel light, ready to run. But he reins in this impulse and walks unhurriedly, adding the little sideways bounce. Then he turns the corner and looks feverishly, desperately, for an available taxi.

~

“So this thing is not being over-hyped, in your view?”

Lieutenant Barton stares frankly across the table at Dr. Jeremy Wells, the young physician who treated Marty Gaynor’s puncture wound.

Jeremy Wells shrugs. “I can’t speak for the media, how things get reported there. But, Simon Louis Krall received a nobel laureate in medicine. He’s a world class geneticist.” Wells looks evenly at the Boston police detective. “So, no, it’s assuredly not hype if he states publicly that these samples were taken from a human-like species that we’ve not encountered before.”

Jeremy Wells feels a shivery thrill at his own words just spoken aloud in this small north shore coffee shop.

“Human-like.” Lieutenant Barton shakes his head. “A Neanderthal could walk down the street in a suit and probably nobody would notice he wasn’t one of us, right? So this new humanoid guy, whatever you want to call him, maybe he could blend in, too?”

Jeremy Wells nods. “Sure, wearing a suit is pretty simple. But, speaking a language, assimilating into a culture, heck having a culture, are the harder questions here.”

“So you’re asking where is his group, his peeps?”

“Exactly. This being, this primate, came from somewhere, was the product of some biological reproduction.”

Lieutenant Barton sips his coffee. “So, was a crime committed or was it not? You get a snake bite and it’s an animal attack, you get stabbed by a mugger and it’s a crime. Two patients with puncture wounds and no real memory of what happened. Could be either.”

“It’s why I didn’t initially file a police report. The lack of testimony and the absence of any human DNA on the wound.”

“You’ve never identified the woman your patient reported being with?”

“No. He admitted to having an extremely high level of blood alcohol during that encounter. His recollection of her was vague.”

“I talked to some guys at a tavern your patient goes to. The owner and several of the regulars remember the night your guy encountered that woman. According to their description she was way out of place there, a bombshell redhead in furs and jewels. An A-list Manhattan call girl if she’s a professional and if she’s a professional what the hell is she doing in a two-bit dive in Lynn?  It makes no business sense.”

“There are certain personality disorders, thrill-seeking obsessions.”

“They described her as very smooth.” Barton reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief which he unfolds to reveal a tiny, slightly translucent white object. He offers it to Jeremy Wells.

“Know what this is?” Barton asks him.

The young doctor inspects the tiny object with curiosity, turning it over in his hand and holding it up to the light. “Well, it actually looks like a cosmetic cap for a tooth. It’s made of an unusual material.”

“I took a walk on that Swampscott beach where the alleged assault occurred. I found this in the sand at low tide.”

“A cosmetic dentist can probably tell you the make sand material.”

“Could such a tooth cap be applied to cover a sharp tooth? The kind of tooth, let’s say the kind of fang, that could make a puncture wound?”

Jeremy Wells gives the lieutenant a surprised look. “Caps are affixed permanently, they aren’t like gloves that you take off and put on again.” Suddenly he smiles a little incredulously and shakes his head at the detective. “Come on, Lieutenant, you aren’t suggesting–”

“Now Doc, I’m not going to say the ‘V’ word. And you aren’t either, even though I know it’s crossed your mind.” Lieutenant Barton sees the stunned looked on Jeremy Wells’ face and picks up the tiny tooth cap. “I’ll just ask whether you know a good dental specialist I can show this to.”

~

It’s early afternoon the day after the ominous meeting at Sam’s Somerville apartment. Sam has been on edge, wondering when the next call or message from Dean will come, wondering how increasingly dangerous it is for him to attempt to reach her at BubbleTrendz, even via her private cell phone.

Rina can barely stand to look at Evan and he notices this change in her attitude and now assesses her with a harsher scrutiny. It’s not clear whether Evan will be eager to slip out for some social time with Rina at this point.  Even if he did leave for an hour, Rolf is still there, coming out of Dean’s office at odd intervals to wander the hall, fetching himself a cup of coffee, peering into offices.  And there’s Sandor. He looks especially pale today and Sam knows that Sandor has trouble masking his emotions far more than even Rina. They cannot afford to have him lash out at Evan just now, they need to keep their heads down and wait for the opportunity to plumb Evan’s files, snare him with digital proof. Dean will know whom to contact once they have proof.

Sam’s cell phone vibrates in her pocket. Dean! She almost tears the phone from her pocket. It’s Anatol, her investment partner.

“Are you watching the markets?”  His rich voice is uncharacteristically strained, distant.

“Not this afternoon.”

“Zaira, Hong Kong is in free fall. Gold is down twenty percent in the past thirty minutes! The Dow is down a thousand points. It’s insanity.”

Sam realizes another call is coming in. “Anatol, whatever you do with our positions I’m with you. There is a call I must take now. I’ll get back to you!” She switches to the new caller.

“Sam?”

“Dean! The markets are tanking! I-”

“Sam, it’s bad. It’s much bigger than BubbleTrendz.”

“What then?” She glances up and down the hall, no Rolf at the moment.

“The one person I trusted to help me, help us, is working for Joel Anderson.”

There is a long silent pause between them. Finally, Sam asks. “Where are you?”

“Delaware.” He sounds defeated, exhausted.

“Dean, listen. Come back here.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Not to BubbleTrendz. To my place.” When he doesn’t reply she offers more. “I have a house outside the city, remote, where you can hide out indefinitely. You can reach it by bus to Salem then a taxi. Go after dark.”  Glancing sharply down the hall, Sam whispers the address of her Marblehead mansion to Dean, promising to meet him there.

“Sam, I don’t know what’s going to happen. With us or with the world. But, thank you.”

~

That same afternoon Stephanie Nichols offers coffee and a slice of homemade cranberry-lemon pie to Lieutenant Barton. He had politely displayed his credentials to her, saying he was merely seeking some local information. She’d cheerfully consented to help in whatever way she could.

“Mrs. Nichols do you and your husband go to The Cat’s Cradle often?”

“It’s a place all the locals go, Bob and Jan have been running that place for twenty years I guess.” She adds cream to her coffee and stirs it.

“You get many non-locals there?”

She gives him a puzzled look, so he adds, “Have you ever seen a young, red-headed woman at The Cat’s Cradle? The flashy kind, you know, with jewels and a fur?”

“Yes! We were there recently and a woman had this gorgeous fur which I happened to accidentally knock from her chair — how embarrassing is that — and then I recognized her as my neighbor!  She lives right down the road.”

“She lives here?” This unexpected tip is exciting.

“Uh huh. She bought Jack Pearson’s property about a year ago I think it was. Jack passed away and his children didn’t want to maintain the house. It is a grand old place although I’d certainly want to do some renovations. We don’t really know her, I’ve rarely seen her. Oh, but I have seen her at the Salem train station.” Stephanie smiles at him. “But no fur then, it was blue jeans and a leather jacket.”

“What kind of car does she drive?”

“Beats me.” Stephanie Nichols grows more serious. “She doesn’t have anything to do with these, well these vampire stories going around?”

“Vampire stories?”

“A beautiful bejeweled female vampire bit a local sailor. Hey, people need stories to get through the long winter nights!” She laughs. “Face it, a female vampire is more glamorous than Big Foot running amok in New York City. I read those stories about that DNA thing. You cannot believe everything you read, though. New Yorkers are prone to hysteria, just look at Yankees fans.” She grimaces, then gives the lieutenant a confidential wink. “We New Englanders are made of tougher stuff, we’ve weathered our Salem witches after all.”

“What’s your neighbor’s name?” Barton asks.

“I honestly don’t know I’m embarrassed to say. We should have her over for drinks one of these days.”

“Which house is it again?”

“Just straight down the road. Turn left from our drive and you can’t miss it. The big gray stone place with the sea wall. Oh my god.”

“What is it?” Barton looks at her sharply, waiting for more.

Stephanie Nichols points to her flat screen TV which had the sound off during their conversation. “The stock market is down over 1300 points!”

— To be continued

Posted in fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Plural Logic


Forming the plural of a noun in English is pretty easy — mostly you add final -s to the singular form (with occasional spelling modifications:  story -> stories).  Linguists refer to nouns that form their plurals with final -s as count nouns.  Another group of nouns referred to as mass nouns generally don’t take final -s because what they refer to in the world is viewed not as countable items, but as an undifferentiated whole, e.g., starlight, fog, dirt, rice.  It’s easy to count three stories, four boxes, five dogs, but starlight, fog and dirt are not so easily countable. Of course specific contexts can override the ordinary mass noun interpretation; a chef might speak of different qualities of Asian rices, for example, or an ichthyologist might refer to fishes of the Indian Ocean. In such contexts, plural -s signals a comparison among kinds of an aggregate or substance.

There are also some curious English nouns which refer to countable items, but such nouns in the singular nevertheless take final plural -s.

  • pants
  • trousers
  • shorts
  • breeches
  • culottes
  • tights
  • drawers, boxers (clothing sense only)

Breeches is a double plural, having added plural -s to what was already the plural brec for the Old English noun broc (a garment covering the thighs and loin).  Trousers comes from Gaelic triubhas (close-fitting shorts) and may have gained its r on the pattern of drawers.

The human body is symmetrical and it’s not surprising that body garments come in pairs. We have pairs of gloves, sleeves, stockings and shoes. But it’s also natural to speak of tearing or losing a single glove, sleeve, stocking or shoe. Yet no one refers to tearing a short, tight, or pant — the garment’s ‘pair plurality’ remains intact.

  • he tore his pants/*?he tore his right pant
  • a rip in her tights/*?a rip in her left tight

Evidently single garments which include covering for paired portions of our anatomy maintain a precarious semantic balance between being a single unit and a paired (plural) unit. This contrasts with gloves and socks, where a pair of gloves always means two separate items.

But it’s not so straightforward. Single coverings for the upper portion of the human body that include covering pairs of appendages (arms, hands) seem to be simple count nouns.

  • shirt
  • blouse
  • coat

A pair of blouses means two separate garments whereas a pair of pants means a single garment. But then we have tails — an informal reference to the single upper garment tailcoat.  The phrase the tails he wore for the wedding were taken to the dry cleaners refers to a single garment, not two garments. Hmm. Could it be because tails is a part of the coat which covers lower anatomy, not upper anatomy?

The noun clothes is an interesting case; it has final plural -s, but refers to an aggregation, not a countable set of items. The expression he took his clothes off  implies that more than one piece was removed, but the word clothes resists numerical precision. (This is similar to the situation with mass nouns such as fog and rice.) Whereas you can easily say he removed three hats or he put on two gloves, it’s really odd to say he removed three clothes. Quantifiers which don’t enumerate the quantity are more natural: he removed some/all/few of his clothes.  Cloth was the singular form in Old English for clothes, but the meaning of cloth has shifted over time and no longer serves as the singular form of a garment. Did clothes become more of a mass noun as a consequence?

Other semantic domains exhibit ‘pair plurality’ to some extent, including tools with two matched appendages.

  • scissors
  • pliers
  • shears

The above terms occur naturally with pair, as in pair of scissors, and they follow the lower-anatomy body garments in those cases by referring to a single item, not two items. SImilarly, it’s odd to speak of  a shear, a plier or a scissor.  These are more natural in the context of being a modifier, as in a scissor blade (similarly, a trouser seam).

Finally there is trou. The word was unknown to me, but a rower tells me that it refers to streamlined shorts worn by scullers. Given that, it certainly looks like a shortening of trousers. Is it a recent innovation? Does trou take final plural -s?  Can it occur with pair as in a new pair of trou?  Perhaps it’s more of an aggregate along the lines of clothes, where only context or quantifiers indicate how many items are referenced.  I would love examples if you have them!

Posted in etymology, language change, Word Usage | Tagged , , | Leave a comment