Did someone say “brain elixir”? Let’s make it something we can drink, especially if it tastes like piña colada. Or eat, preferably with the flavor and texture of fine dark chocolate. Lacking that, at least give it to us in pill form since this is, after all, 21st century America where we expect things fast, effortless, and effective. No pill? Okay then, how about a surgical procedure? You know—risk-free, quick recovery, and lift this saggy jowl while you’re at it.
Actually, there are many substances we can drink, eat, and pop that benefit the brain. Ginseng is tops among several herbs said to improve memory and mental performance. Gingko biloba is another, known as the memory booster and widely used in Europe to treat dementia. The list of “brain foods” tacked to your refrigerator door probably includes blueberries, wild salmon, avocados, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, whole grains, and yes, dark chocolate (finally, a guilt-free obsession!) It could be that coffee and tea can not only improve mood, but also memory and general cognitive function as well. There’s wheat grass versus brain fog, pomegranate juice versus forgetfulness, and of course exercise as one of the best ways to maintain brain health into old age. Studies show that people who walk just five miles a week increase their brain volume and show less development of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Along with that green light for dark chocolate, here’s another welcome piece of news: many studies indicate that brisk walking is preferable to heavy aerobic exercise.
The subject of growing a bigger brain captured my attention when I read a BBC report about a scientific study of the brain size of London cab drivers. Interns undergo three to four years of intensive training and then take a test of the accuracy of their mental map of the city’s 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks and their ability to quickly calculate routes and avoid jams. Only about half of them pass to become taxi drivers in one of the world’s busiest cities and craziest street layouts. In each one of the individuals in the test group, MRI imaging showed that a specific part of their brain, the posterior hippocampus, had grown remarkably and continued to develop as they spent hours each day behind the wheel mentally mapping the quickest route between two points.
Less than five years ago, there was another landmark study in Sweden using recruits in the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy who were tested before and after a three month period of intensive foreign language study. Compared to the control group, the language students showed growth in the hippocampus, as well as in three areas of the cerebral cortex. Since the hippocampus is responsible for learning new material and spatial navigation, and the cerebral cortex is related to language learning, the findings in both studies seem logical in retrospect, but it is stunning to realize that the brain actually behaves like a muscle, increasing in size and strength with exercise...
Excerpted from Wordstruck! The Fun and fascination of Language
Valentine’s Day is approaching, but I’m not one to give relationship advice on how to find the perfect mate, how to woo, how to rekindle or glue it back together. Nor would I wish to hold forth on fifty ways to leave your lover.
What I propose are novel ideas on what you might whisper in your loved one’s ear at the breakfast table over Belgian waffles, juicy strawberries and freshly brewed coffee; over a languorous lunch that starts with a sparkling flute and continues with oysters on the half shell and more; when you reunite to debrief after a hard day’s work; or when you’re snuggling in for a long winter’s nap.
What lassoes a humble writer to launch this conversation on the precipice of Valentine’s Day is the possibility always alive in every relationship—whether new, seasoned or diminished—for more listening, tuned-in attention, a compassionate hand extended to take the hill together, an opening to find something beyond the “already and always” known about a partner, child, parent or friend.
Now back to those waffles and oysters, though preferably not in the same meal, and the whisper of magic words, perhaps more adventurous than “honey”, “baby”, “sweetie”, or “boo” (slang for boyfriend or girlfriend, originating with French beau). It has been suggested by research—and I can confirm based on personal experience—that people can have a different personality manifest in each language they speak. Is it too great a leap to say that terms of endearment might sound more seductive in a foreign language, and the speaker of them might notice a shift in persona beyond the spoken word?
Speakers of romance languages are stereotypically legendary for their ardent purrings of love. If that sweet murmur is mi amor instead of the American colloquial “babe,” both the speaker and the receiver might experience a romantic surge. Other options in Spanish can be mi vida (my life), mi corazón (my heart), mi cielo (my heaven), mi rey/reina (my king/queen), tesoro (treasure), and cariño (like “darling”).
An Italian woman might entice him to come hither with vita mia (my life), cuore mio (my heart), caro (dear one), or polpetto (meatball). (Don’t ask—this is love, not logic. Besides, who doesn’t love a good meatball?) He will melt her heart with belissima (very beautiful), dolcezza (sweetness), principessa (princess), carina (cutie), fragolina (little strawberry), or microbino mio (my little microbe).
As you might guess, the French language is also a rich mine of gems when it comes to terms of endearment. We all know ma chérie thanks to Stevie Wonder’s “Ma Chérie Amour” and the odor-able Pepé le Pew cartoons. A sampling of pet names for the moitié (other half) include mon dou dou (cuddles or pookie), mon petit chou (my little cabbage), ma puce (my flea), and a zoo of other entries inspired by the animal kingdom including rabbit, quail, hen, duckling, chicken, and shrimp—sounds like a full menu of add-ons for a dish of chow mein. He can be mon nounours (my teddy bear), and she can be mon oisillon (my little birdie), or mon chaton (my kitten), but even careful pronunciation may not ensure the desired effect with ma biche (my doe).
Turning now towards northern languages, I don’t think my Dutch father ever called my mother mijn poepie (my poopsie), or bolleke (little round thing), but he might have nuzzled her ear with schatje (little treasure)—yes, as in Ukiah’s own Schat’s Bakery! In German, the diminutive forms of bear, hare, mouse, sparrow and deer are preferred pet names for a loved one: respectively, Bärchen, Häschen, Mäuschen, Spätzchen, and Rehlein. An oddly heartwarming one I came across is Mausbär, a creative combo that adds to the diminutive concept of “mouse” with a big “bear” hug. And the winner in the cutesy category is Schnuckiputzi, mashing up words (as German is wont to do) to form something like “sweet cutie-pie.”
In Sweden, your lover might swoon as you intone sötnos (sweet nose). In Ireland the heart will quicken to the rhythm of Riverdance at the sound of mo chuisle (my pulse). The Polish key to a willing heart might be kruszynko (breadcrumb). In Denmark, min guldklump suggests love cherished over the “gold nuggets” in the bank vault.
Whether it’s Arabic “eyes of a gazelle”, Spanish mi media naranja (the other half of my orange), Tibetan nyingdu-la (most honored poison of my heart), or Russian rybka (little fish), these all really translate to the same thing: affection and devotion, and that’s worth more than all the klumps of guld on the planet.
Now, still in search of that prize, we follow Cupid’s arrow for a brief world tour of the customs of courtship and love. In Mexico, February 14 is El día de amor y amistad (The Day of Love and Friendship) and celebrated with balloons, roses and cards. But before you say ho-hum, fast forward to Saint Anthony’s feast day on June 13 when single women flip the saint’s statue on its head until he manifests their mate. Brazilians opt for “Lover’s Day” on June 12th, and singles undertake their own rites and offerings to implore Santo Antônio to materialize the mate of their dreams.
I’ve read that in France of yesteryear, after happy couples united on Valentine’s and wandered off into les cafés to begin their life together, bonfires were lit on the streets and single women burned images of lost loves and shouted insults into the inferno, voicing their blazing rage against the unfaithful ones. In time, this custom was banned by the French government because it became increasingly incendiary with each passing year.
In South Korea, Valentine’s variations are observed February through April, beginning with the women’s task of seducing the men with candies and flowers. On March 14, known as White Day, the tables turn, and it’s the men who must ante up with chocolates, bouquets and gifts. Then there’s Black Day on April 14, when the so-called unlucky ones eat black bean-paste noodles, called jajangmyeon, out of black bowls to lament their lonely status.
In Wales, there’s no Saint Valentine, but Saint Dwynwen is celebrated on January 25th as the finder of mates and protector of lovers. On that day, a man carves a small but elaborate elaborate wooden spoon and gifts it as a token of dedication to his intended. In the Philippines, hundreds of couples come together at malls and other roomy public sites to take or renew marriage vows in huge ceremonies with thousands of family, friends, and well-wishers in attendance.
When I was a child, Valentine’s Day meant a special breakfast before school: waffles with strawberries and whipped cream instead of the usual porridge or runny egg. It meant a little basket of chocolates on my plate, cards to be delivered to my classmates, and anticipation of the ones I’d receive in return. One website states: “In the USA, there have been many varieties of cards given over the years, some of which have often been rude or quite cruel in their humor.” Why are those the ones I remember? Chris Chambers was my sixth grade heart throb, so I was thrilled to see his name on the envelope. Side one of the card made my pulse quicken: “I love the way your hair hangs down your back…” Unfortunately, the message on the flip side was not so heart-fluttering: “Too bad it doesn’t grow on your head!!!” and a cartoon of a girl with a huge mane but a bald crown and bulging eyes. It still leaves me with the silly vestige of a heartbreak after all these years.
It’s not about what words are said or the language in which they are spoken. It’s about the emotion, the sentiment, the feeling that propels them from heart to mind to mouth, and into the waiting universe of the one you love. It can be as seductive as Mia vita, as silly as Ma puce, or as simple as “Hello”, motored by interest and intimacy; “Hey…”, as one open heart inviting another; “Ouch!”, followed by a pillow fight; “What about…”, allowing a suppressed thought or an idea to finally find a voice; or “Whoa! I’m so grateful to see your fabulous self on this special day!” –and every day.
In my early years at Mendocino College the Dean of Instruction, Susan Bell, and her husband Neill were enthusiastic students in my beginning Spanish classes. The Bells threw great parties up on Black Bart ridge. Susan was a fabulous cook, the guest list was eclectic—even for Mendocino County—and the conversation always lively. Susan and I had become fast friends and having her in my classes was an honor and a delight. She took on Spanish with the same joyful inhibition that seemed to motivate her approach to life overall. Never the wallflower, she sought to practice Spanish with Neill and other students, with bilingual college employees, and out in the community every chance she got.
One day before class she recounted what had happened when she engaged the owner of a local Mexican restaurant in conversation after finishing her lunch. First she introduced herself and warned that she knew “poquito español.” Fair enough. Then she began to tell him how much she was enjoying her [begin ital]clase de español[end ital]. So far so good, and he complimented her pronunciation and her dedication. Susan loved conversation and she was just warming up into this one--[begin ital]in a foreign language[end ital] at that!
The pesky trouble with all lexicons is that a single word will often have multiple meanings. As Susan was going on about how much she loved the language, and [begin ital]el señor[end ital] heard her say for about the third time, “Me gusta mucho la lengua”, he responded with “Un momento”, disappeared into the kitchen, and came out two minutes later with [begin ital]un taco muy especial para la señora[end ital], and placed before her with a flourish a very special tongue taco made especially for the lady. As she chewed through this new culinary adventure, Susan pondered what had just taken place: Language? Tongue? Ah-ha! [begin ital]Lengua[end ital] means both. There are two main words for language, and Mexican Spanish-speakers almost always opt for [begin ital]idioma[end ital] over [begin ital]lengua[end ital]. Chalking up his bafflement to her “poquito español”, señor interpreted that she was professing her enchantment with beef tongue and wanted her to sample his.
I had to take some responsibility for this communication snafu because I had given my students both [begin ital]idioma[end ital] and [begina ital]lengua[end ital] for language, and you can see which one stuck. Susan laughed heartily over this misunderstanding (that resulted in a free taco) and waded right back into deep and unpredictable linguistic waters, always convinced that everything would turn out just the way it should and maybe provide entertaining moments en route.
Excerpt from the chapter "Speaking of Tongues" in Wordstruck! The Fun and Fascination of Language.
Back in the “good old” Sacramento days when I wasn’t good and I wasn’t old, my pals and I never got tired of Lefty Daugherty entertaining us with funny little rhymes that rolled off his tongue in oddly accented English that sounded like Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady: “Your rattles and jar, that’s your car. Your trouble and strife, that’s your wife. A hit and a miss, that’s a piss. Dog’s meat, that’s your feet.” Between hilarity and curiosity I soon found out he wasn’t making this stuff up but rather carrying on the tradition of rhyming Cockney slang that’s now almost two hundred years old.
The word Cockney has evolved in meaning over time from a reference to all city dwellers, to a label for the residents and their speech in the Cheapside neighborhood of London, and now refers to the dialect and accent of working-class Londoners in general. It is precisely the speech that Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison) in the legendary musical My Fair Lady proposes to train out of Eliza (played by Audrey Hepburn) so he can win the bet with his linguist friend that he could coach a Cockney into speaking like a duchess. The musical is based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw (1913) who commented on English accents in the preface, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”
The most outstanding feature of the Cockney accent is the absence of the “h” sound: “Ow, me ‘ead ‘urts!” And yes, they really do say “me” instead of “my”. You won’t catch a Cockney saying, “My girlfriend broke my heart”, but he might say, “The cheese broke me ‘eart.” The cheese?? Sure, you know—that rhyming thing again: cheese and kisses that’s your “missus” (wife or girlfriend). With a little practice, you too can learn to speak Cockney-style! Just check out the on-line tutorial “Learn the Cockney Accent with Jason Statham”. Jason gets in your face with his demonstration of the dialect, and that essential insouciance that goes along with it, for a spell-binding 7.27 minutes. At the end of that crash course you could give it a try, but be forewarned—the British, and Londoners in particular, think we Americans sound ridiculous-bordering-on-pathetic when we try to imitate any of the accents of the Kingdom.
Excerpt from the chapter "It's All Bubble and Squeak to Me" in Wordstruck! The Fun and fascination of Language.
Big and fat or teeny and white, research say that a lie comes at us as often as 200 times a day. Seems impossible until we consider a few sources: on-line dating profiles (90% contain a lie says Scientific American), job resumes (estimates at 40%), family and friends (average 75%), product hype to disappear our wrinkles and grow our hair back, and presidential candidate debates.
According to a study by the University of Massachusetts, in ten minutes of conversation 60% of adults lied an average of three times. I’m sure all of us are among the perfectly honest 40%, right? Actually the 60% who lied thought they were too, and didn’t believe the outcome until they listened to a playback of their conversation. It goes without saying that the lies, in the great majority, are not damaging. They are the fibs we tell to come off as better, smarter, witty and worthy. We want to fit in, be liked, gracefully back out of a social obligation, or not hurt someone’s feelings.
Lying is a skill that most of us discovered around age four, honed through childhood, and practiced avidly in the teen years. As adults, our patterns are pretty well set. When my grandmother left post WWII Europe to come to America, her new life she included major plot alterations of the one she’d left behind. They became such a part of her new identity that she probably died believing her father had been a surgeon, and that she did study music at the Sorbonne.
The Italians have that wonderful expression to articulate their prime cultural commandment: fare la bella figura, literally “to make the beautiful figure”, meaning to create the best possible impression in every situation while looking and sounding great throughout. It comes down to impeccable fashion sense, good manners, and a flair for producing just the right words and actions to fit the moment. One can’t help but wonder how many piccole bugie bianche (little white lies) it takes to keep all that glued together.
It would be fun to go on in this anecdotal vein, especially since I was just on the verge of making my column my confessional, but I stay my hand and turn now to the lexicon of lying, the real motive for this piece. I became interested in the subject years ago when my ex was a detective for the state police and I used to read his training manuals on lie detection. Everyone knows at least a few of the what-to-look-fors in terms of gestures and body movements that might indicate a lie is being told: no eye contact, touching the mouth or throat, shuffling feet, excessive fidgeting, etc.
What follows is the “Dirty (Baker’s) Dozen” of verbal clues that might indicate someone is lying...
Excerpt from the chapter "Pants on Fire" in Wordstruck! The Fun and Fascination of Language.