Dorks, dweebs, geeks and nerds

Yesterday a colleague informed us that it was National Be a Dork Day. I pondered that no-one seems to have reclaimed dork in the same way that some people have reclaimed various other terms, including geek and nerd. Then as made my mid-morning cup of coffee I scrolled through Facebook and one friend recounted a minor mishap before concluding “I’m such a dork”. 

Because of the nature of these words, there are no universally agreed definitions of dork, geek and nerd, to which I also need to add dweeb (which is not word I would naturally use).

Merriam-Webster defines them as:

informal: an odd, socially awkward, unstylish person
slang: an unattractive, insignificant, or inept person
1: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked
2: an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity
computer geek
3: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake
1: a person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests
also : a person preoccupied with or devoted to a particular activity or field of interest
2: an unstylish or socially awkward person

It includes a usage note:

Dork, when used to refer to a socially awkward or inept person, is a relatively recent word: our records indicate that it first appeared in writing in the 1960s. Two of its synonyms in this sense are likewise of fairly recent vintage. Nerd (typically used of a studious species of dork) dates from the 1950s; it was coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, although not in the sense that we use today. The usage of nerd is now often used in a neutral fashion to denote enthusiasm or expertise (theater nerd) or proudly as a self-identifying trait (word nerd). Geek became synonymous with nerd in the 1950s and has similarly seen increasing use with positive connotations, showing membership in a specialized group (film geek, beer geek) rather than social awkwardness. In its earliest meanings, geek referred to, among other things, a carnival performer who would bite the head off a live chicken, or other small animal, as part of an act.

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And to think that I saw it in a Dr Seuss book

In 1937, Vanguard Press published And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street, by Dr Seuss, known to his family and friends as Theodore Seuss Geisel. The original edition referred to “a Chinaman”, which was later changed to “a Chinese man”. Chinaman is now seen as offensive though possibly not taboo, and no new children’s book would use it. As far as I can find, there are no direct equivalent instances of [Country] + man. The closest is Indiaman, but that didn’t/doesn’t refer to a person, but rather to a large ship engaged in trade between Europe and India. notes that Chinaman was originally as neutral as Englishman and Irishman. The difference is that Chinaman is [Country]-noun + man (compare *Englandman and *Irelandman), while Englishman and Irishman are [Nationality]-adj + man (compare *Chineseman). 

The Wikipedia article on Chinaman (linked above) mentions that Chinese uses 中國人 (zhōng-guó rén, China man/person), and I am familiar with Korean 중국 사람 (jung-guk sa-ram, China person). 중국 남자 (jung-guk nam-ja, China man) and 중국 여자 (jung-guk yeo-ja) are both also possible. I would not be surprised if many other languages use this formula. It is certainly not inherently racist. (Also, the Chinese word for a Western foreigner, 鬼佬 (gwei-lo), means ghost or devil man. Hmmm …)

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Fox in Socks – pronunciation and spelling





So begins Fox in Socks, by Dr Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel), a series of increasingly intricate tongue-twisters. Along the way, whether Seuss intended it to or not, it illustrates many points of English pronunciation and spelling.

Each of the words has four phonemes (distinct sounds) in pronunciation, represented by three, four or five letters in spelling, so immediately there is not a direct correspondence between sound and spelling. Each of the words starts with one consonant phoneme /f/, /s/, /b/ and /n/. The first three are represented by one letter, but the last is represented by two letters kn – the k is silent. It used to be pronounced but now it isn’t (long story). (In fact, the k is silent in all English words starting with kn.)

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Grammar in Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks – Part 2

This and the previous post are actually more about pronunciation, but I started with the title ‘Grammar’, so I may as well continue.

New socks. Two socks.
Whose socks? Sue’s socks.
Who sews whose socks?
Sue sews Sue’s socks.

Who sees who sew whose new socks, sir?
You see Sue sew Sue’s new socks, sir.

That’s not easy, Mr. Fox, sir.

Who comes? … Crow comes.
Slow Joe Crow comes.

Who sews crow’s clothes?
Sue sews crow’s clothes.
Slow Joe Crow sews whose clothes?
Sue’s clothes.

Sue sews socks of fox in socks now.
Slow Joe Crow sews Knox in box now.

Sue sews rose on Slow Joe Crow’s clothes.
Fox sews hose on Slow Joe Crow’s nose.

Hose goes. Rose grows.
Nose hose goes some. Crow’s rose grows some.

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Grammar in Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks – Part 1


So begins Dr Seuss’s Fox in Socks. These four words all consist of four sounds, but in no case do the sounds and the letters match exactly (for a start, fox and box have three letters and socks has five). Ideally, a writing system for a language should correspond to the pronunciation of that language, but for various reasons this is rarely (if ever) the case for any language, and is certainly not the case for English.

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Dr Seuss ABC part 3

We’ve gone right through the alphabet (A-M) and (N-Z) but not yet encountered every sound in the English pronunciation system, partly because some sounds are comparatively rare and less likely to be found in a book this size, but mostly because they are usually represented by two letters together. Indeed, we have already seen ‘Aunt’,  ‘oiled’ and ‘owl’, and considered <ge, gi, gy> representing /dʒ/.

Consider the following sentences, especially the sounds in italics:
Camel on the ceiling
Willy Waterloo washes Warren Wiggins who is washing Waldo W oo.
Kitten. Kangaroo. Kick a kettle. Kite and a king’s kerchoo.
Vera Violet Vinn is very very very awful on her violin.
Uncle Ubb’s umbrella and his underwear, too.

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Dr Seuss’ ABC part 2

(If you haven’t already, you may want to read the first part.)

Nine new neckties and a nightshirt and a nose.
<n> is usually /n/. Here we have it at the beginning of words (it can also go in the middle and at the end). (<nn>, which is always /n/, is also possible in the middle or at the end of words, but not at the beginning.)

Oscar’s only ostrich oiled an orange owl today.
For me, there are 5 different vowels here. ‘Oscar’, ‘ostrich’ and ‘orange’ have /ɒ/ (a “short o”), ‘only’ has /oʊ/ (a “long o”), ‘oiled’ has /ɔɪ/, owl has /aʊ/ and ‘today’ has a schwa /ə/ (in quick, informal speech, at least; I probably pronounce it carefully as ‘tudeɪ’). It is possible that Dr Seuss had a FATHER/BOTHER merger, and pronounced ‘Oscar’, ‘ostrich’ and ‘orange’ as (approximately) ‘Ahscar’, ‘ahstrich’ and ‘ahrange’.

Painting pink pyjamas. Policeman in a pail. Peter Pepper’s puppy. And now Papa’s in a pail. Continue reading

Dr Seuss’ ABC

When I was a child, we had several Dr Seuss books, but they weren’t a particular feature of my early reading. Over the past few years, I have returned to some of his books to find material for lessons and for general linguistic interest. ‘Let’s start at the very beginning … when you read you begin with A, B, C’, so the first book I’ll look at here (though I haven’t used it in class) is ‘Dr Seuss’ ABC’. In particular, I am looking at the differences between spelling and pronunciation. I use < > to mean ‘spelling’ and / / to mean ‘pronunciation’. I have split the alphabet into two – it’s well over a thousand words already.

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