My sister walked up to the taxi stand in the Las Vegas airport.

“Wheeeeyaah?” the middle-aged woman asked in a thick New York accent.

“What?” my sister, a native of the Dallas area who has little experience with New York accents, replied.

“WHEEEEYAAH?” she repeated, exasperation rising.

“Um, NOW,” my ridiculously awesome sister answered, thinking the woman was asking a different question that was much less logical in those circumstances. Normally, she tries not to be a smart aleck with strangers, but…you know.


“Oh, the Monte Carlo.”

Strong accents seem to be on the decline these days, both according to some articles I’ve read and from my own observation. I recently spent a few days in New York, a place full of people whom native Texans often expect to talk “funny”. However, looking back, I’m struck by how few New York accents I heard. The only one I remember belonged to a pizza maker in a neighborhood restaurant in Manhattan. The only other memorable accent came from two female South African tennis fans. Most people sounded fairly neutral. Now that I’m back home, even though I’ve lived in Texas all my life and come from a line of Texas accents, I still notice the accent when I’m around anyone who has a strong one.

Several factors contribute to this decline in accent prevalence. As our society becomes more mobile and more urban, people are less likely to spend their whole lives surrounded by people who all talk the same way. We move from place to place, from state to state, and even from country to country. Each generation is more likely to live in a large city or metropolitan area that contains people from a variety of places with a variety of different accents, many of which are very slight. We also consume mass amounts of nationally distributed music, film, television, and other media that generally uses a Midwestern-like accent called Standard American or General American English. As the article notes in quoting journalist Linda Ellerbee, “in television, you’re not supposed to sound like you’re from anywhere”. Standard American is becoming the most common accent in our country.

An article in the Austin paper argues that the younger people, especially younger women, are the biggest drivers of this standardization of accent. In some cases, the change is passive, but many people choose to downplay their native accent to blend in. When I’m relaxing with family or friends, and especially when I’m tired, I do speak a bit Texan. However, most of the time I try to use Standard American, such as when I’m at work, on the phone, giving a speech, or doing business with someone. Why?

First, I tend to mumble, so adding an accent to my mumbling doesn’t help. Trying to “talk neutral” forces me to enunciate better, like I learned back in my theater and singing days. Second, right or wrong, some people tend to assume a lower level of education or intelligence in someone who sounds strongly Texan. Unless, I’m deliberately playing dumb, I want credit for the few brain cells I have left. Third, in the same vein, some people make other assumptions about those who sound Texan. I might be from Texas, but I don’t ride a horse to work, live on a ranch, watch Fox News, vote for people named Bush, own an oil well or cowboy hat, or drive a pickup. Many people around here do the same thing when they hear a New York accent, assuming the speaker must be rude, abrupt, standoffish, and liberal.

Accents will probably never completely disappear, but I see no reason why the consolidation trend won’t continue. A strong Texas accent will probably sound a bit more foreign to my boys than it does to me. In some ways that’s unfortunate, as we’re losing some of the regional color that makes our language and culture so interesting. Yet it also provides some advantages, such as making communication easier and reducing our tendency to make assumptions based on how we talk.

Peace, y’all. 🙂

A Kick-Ass Guide to Profanity

I’m allowed two F-bombs per day while still maintaining my PG-13 rating. – J.B.

Having children has taught me many things – some good, some bad, some merely interesting. Among other things, I finally realized why my mom didn’t want me to swear when I was a kid. It’s not so much about the “bad” words themselves. It’s about not wanting to “that parent” whose kid has a dirty mouth. Knowing that people judge parents in part by their kids’ behavior, unfair as it might be, Jenny and I try to watch our mouths around the kids. But what is it about certain words that makes them “profane” and inappropriate for our kids to say?

I remember arguing with an agnostic friend in high school about the Bible’s guidance on profanity. He used to work really hard to get me to swear, but it hardly ever worked. He nearly had a heart attack once when I called him a dumbass.

“Where does the Bible say you can’t cuss?” he asked. The best answer I had was Ephesians 4:29: “Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Not bad advice, but it’s pretty vague, and it certainly didn’t convince my friend. Who defines what is foul? The Bible doesn’t seem to include an appendix with a list of banned words.

As I got older and less legalistic and uptight, I realized that there is no such list, in the Bible or elsewhere. Profanity is culture-specific, changes over time, and is highly dependent on context. What’s a cuss word in one context might be acceptable in another. Indeed, in certain situations, it might even be the perfect word to achieve the goal. Imagine John McClane telling Hans Gruber, “Yippie-ki-ay, Mr. Poopypants!” Sometimes nothing but a swear word gets the job done.

Out of order? Fuck! Even in the future nothing works! — Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs

The appropriateness of a word depends on three main factors:

Where You Are

For example, consider the word bollocks. In Britain, the term is a crude word for testicles. I didn’t even know what it meant until I found this site about British swear words. If I toss out the word here in Dallas, most Americans might think I sound quaint but won’t take offense. The word fanny is a generally acceptable term for one’s backside here in America, but in Britain it’s an offensive term for the vagina, a step below the dreaded C-word.

How Your Culture Uses and Interprets the Word

Words change in status over time as well as across the pond. Consider the word damn. Before Rhett Butler uttered his most famous line in 1939’s Gone with the Wind, the Hollywood Production Code banned the word from use in film. According to IMDB, an amendment to the code was required so that the film didn’t end with something underwhelming like, “Frankly, my dear, I just don’t care.”

Now, you can hear damn on network TV, radio, school plays, and even church. It’s still not a “nice” word, but its usage has become much more acceptable. Same goes for piss, especially as in pissed off.

Santorini's donkeyphoto © 2010 Klearchos Kapoutsis | more info (via: Wylio)

The meaning of words can change over time, too. The word ass once meant a donkey and was not offensive. I remember being in Sunday School as a kid with my King James Bible. We were reading aloud from Matthew about Palm Sunday. It was my turn. I surely turned red at Matthew 21:5: “Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.” (Wow, the Bible says ass! And I just said it, too! In church! And I didn’t get in trouble. Whoa.)

In the 20th century, the word ass developed other meanings and variations that were considered semi-vulgar and had no relation to donkeys. Today I suppose ass is in the same category as damn: not terribly polite, but not one of the few BANNED WORDS that they don’t allow on primetime TV or radio. It’s even in the title of a movie, 2010’s excellent and underappreciated Kick-Ass.

What You’re Doing and With Whom

The situation might be the most important when determining the appropriateness of profanity. Dropping the F-bomb during the vows at one’s wedding would not be appropriate, at least in the weddings I normally attend. However, if a woman in labor accidentally let it out during a hard contraction, I doubt many people would care, even her saintly mother who had raised her not to talk that way and feels guilty herself for calling someone a dummy. Certain jobs, such as police work or military service, tend to have cultures that are more open to profanity than others, such as ministry or preschool education.

I rarely swear around my coworkers or friends. It’s just not my style, and I don’t want to offend anyone. I swear a little more around Jenny, especially if I’ve had wine. I swear to myself sometimes. Not sure why. Maybe it feels rebellious. Instead of giving bad drivers the bird, I’ll call them a rat bastard or a dumbass in the safety of my car. I’m such a rebel.

My current favorite swear word is badass, which is admittedly questionable at best. Hey, I’m still a rookie. Do you have a favorite?


Despite my youthful, goody-two-shoes misgivings about swearing, as a grown-ass man I have concluded that words are simply words. They have good or bad connotations based on how society perceives them in a given situation. In some situations, a good swear might be the best choice. Some studies indicate that swearing actually helps reduce stress. Just cover my kids’ ears before you let loose. I still have a reputation to uphold.

Alpha Bravo

You’re on the phone with someone. You need to spell a word for the other party, perhaps a street name so they can send you a giant novelty check or a free puppy. You have two choices:

  1. Waste time and oxygen with the traditional “L as in Larry, A as in Apple, R as in Robot…”
  2. Use the ICAO spelling alphabet.

People who talk on the radio, such as pilots and sailors, find that radio communication can be hampered by poor reception, stress, time pressures, and various accents and dialects. Since English is the standard language of aviation, the international aviation community developed the ICAO spelling alphabet to make it easy to understand individual English letters over the radio throughout the world.

Although it sounds a bit odd and technical at first, once you learn the system, it’s actually easy to use and more efficient than the traditional “L as in Larry.” A little practice goes a long way. The word form of each letter, as you probably expect, starts with that letter. A becomes Alpha, B becomes Bravo, and so on.

I use the ICAO spelling alphabet quite often at work. For example, when we must amend a flight release, we use our initials for simplicity. Instead of “AB,” which the pilot could easily mishear as “AD” or “AV”, I am simply Alpha Bravo. Not only does it sound slick, but it also prevents the pilots from mishearing my name as Randy Fox or Sandy Cox.

Here’s a breakdown of the spelling version of the English alphabet:

A Alpha N November
B Bravo O Oscar
C Charlie P Papa
D Delta Q Quebec
E Echo R Romeo
F Foxtrot S Sierra
G Golf T Tango
H Hotel U Uniform
I India V Victor
J Juliet W Whiskey
K Kilo X X-ray
L Lima Y Yankee
M Mike Z Zulu

Sure, some of the words are a bit goofy and/or dated (“foxtrot”? seriously?), but the system works. The U.S. military, police forces, and other groups also use this system or a modified version of it. I am a big fan and wish everyone used it whenever they need to spell something out over the phone. It can also be used to more politely encode some impolite acronyms for those in the know (see military aviator slang).

Magic Words

So far one of the most fun parts of fatherhood has been listening to Brenden learn English. Because his brain is developing at the same time he is learning it, his journey is different from that of an adult trying to learn a second language. If I try to learn French, I approach it from an English frame of reference and look for equivalent words and phrases between the two languages. I continue to think in English for quite a while until I have developed a fairly solid command of the new language. To say something in French, I first decide what to say in English and then translate it.

We can’t remember a time when every language was foreign, like it is for a baby, to whom everyone sounds like the teacher from the Charlie Brown cartoons. That concept scares me. I am so dependent on language – for learning about the world, for communicating with friends and family, for meeting my needs, for doing my job – that I would be devastated to suddenly lose the ability to communicate in words. But a baby has never known any different. In utero, he hears muffled voices from outside but doesn’t know what they mean or even that they have meaning. Only after repeatedly associating a few common words (momma, daddy, bottle) with visible people and objects after birth does he start to understand the purpose and power of language. Later he learns that people and objects can have qualities (blue, tall, cold) and perform actions (sit, eat, run).

Brenden started with the typical words such as “mommy” and “daddy”. At some point Brenden began to parrot us more often. If I said, “We’re going to the store,” he might reply, “Store,” adding his cute little inflection. This made us watch our mouths more closely. Then he started to figure out some of the rules behind word structure, such as the tendency of certain verb forms to end in -ing. I was amazed when he began to apply that rule to invent his own words. The thought “I am getting down from the chair” became “downing”. He began repeating words he had only heard once or twice and using them correctly. If he couldn’t pronounce a word properly, he invented and stuck with his own version, turning “nuggets” into “nunnies” and “blueberries” into “blueys”. He began to pair nouns with verbs, as in “hold the bowl” or “going Grammy’s house”. I am very proud of his abilities, but also a bit scared. I don’t think he’s “supposed” to be this verbal at 22 months.

Perhaps the best phrase yet came today. I was watching the boys while Jenny went on a girls’ weekend to Canton. Brenden had just awoken from a nap and stood at his window looking at cars. I joined him at the window and talked to him about the cars. After a pause, in the sweetest little voice, he said the magic words that every parent loves to hear.

“Love you, Daddy.”

I melted. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he understood and meant it.

Thank God for giving us the ability to talk to each other.

10 Commonly Mispronounced Words

Whether it’s the complexity of the English language, regional differences, laziness, or other factors, we mispronounce many of our words, often without even realizing it. Here are ten that I’ve noticed in other people. You’ve probably heard some from me, as well.

What-a-Burger Water-Burger
Realtor Real-a-tor
Height Heighth
Nuclear Nucular
Ask Aks
Idea Ideal
Wash Warsh
Chipotle Chi-pol-tee
Louisiana Loo-zee-ann-a
Vanilla Va-nell-a

In doubt about the correct pronunciation of a word? Check Dictionary.com.

What have you heard?


I am compelled by reason, order, and respect for the mother tongue to clarify a common misconception regarding the use of the word kolache. According to Dictionary.com, a kolache is “a sweet bun filled with jam or pulped fruit”. They are either square or round in shape with a depression in the middle where the baker places a dollop of fruity stuff, cream cheese, chocolate, or some other yummy, sweet substance. Some donut shops around here sell them. For truly authentic (i.e. European) kolaches, try visiting West, Texas. Not the region where you’ll find Odessa and Lubbock, but the tiny town on I-35 between Hillboro and Waco. Good stuff.

A kolache is NOT a piece of sausage wrapped in bread, as some people and some donut stores call them. Wikipedia says such a dish is correctly called a klobasnek. I’ve also heard them called sausage rolls or pigs in a blanket. But they are NOT kolaches.

Thank you. You may now resume your regularly scheduled donut order.