Wheelbarrels and rollycoasters

wheelbarrowI’ve never been a fan of baby talk, even when babies do it. It’s bad enough that parents (and grandparents) encourage it by laughing at the adorable tot’s consonant substitutions, but when they do it themselves, it sets a confusing example.

Surely a child’s language development is seriously delayed every time he hears an adult say, “Aw, wook at him cute widdle toes …How old are you? Fwee?”

I’ve observed the same phenomenon when native English speakers, in trying to communicate with native Spanish speakers, speak English with (their idea of) a Spanish accent. It sounds ridiculous and is both confusing and condescending to the Spanish speaker. Maybe adults think speaking in baby talk makes them somehow more understandable to the child. I always imagine babies thinking, “What the <bleep> is wrong with you?”

Despite years of hearing baby talk, many children grow up to speak correctly. Gradually they listen to adults on television, teachers in their schools, speech therapists (surprise!) … and they figure out most of it. But some words have a harder time than others in making the transition from playpen to board room.

A shocking number of adults never completely graduated from baby talk, even if they don’t realize it. Here are three words that, when mispronounced, suggest the speaker needs a nap:

  • Wheelbarrow (not wheelbarrel or wheelborrow). It contains neither the word barrel nor the word borrow. The barrow part rhymes with narrow.
  • Roller coaster (not rolly coaster). The fact that it is, indeed, rolly does not excuse putting that word in its name.
  • Kindergarten (not kindygarden or kinnygarden). It’s from German, where kinder means children. But that doesn’t give us a pass to mangle kinder and half-translate the rest to garden—even though that’s literally what it means.

The cuteness associated with baby talk decreases rapidly after about the age of two, and is completely gone by the time you start elementary school. So if you’re still saying words like this, don’t be surprised if your co-workers (instead of gathering for cake in the break room) chip in and buy you a dictionary for your birfday.

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Talking within your headlights

funny tombstoneThe phrase “Driving within your headlights” means that at night you should slow down and be prepared to stop if you encounter an obstacle within your range of vision. If you  suddenly see a deer in the road, you have time to brake and avoid an accident.

Think of your mind as the headlights and your mouth as the brake. If you’re talking to a large group of people or – heaven forbid – on radio or television, your mind might tell you to use a fancy word guaranteed to make you sound intelligent. But somewhere between that thought and your mouth is a filter that says, in effect, “Wait! Are you sure that’s the right word?”

If neglected, that filter becomes clogged with years of accumulated blunders. If you (metaphorically) drive a military assault vehicle and no one dares to correct you, you’re probably talking through a filter full of flattened deer, raccoons, squirrels, and skunks. People might secretly giggle, but they’re not going to tell you.

Today I heard a reporter for a major television news network say a crowd was shouting epitaphs at a Muslim woman. I’ll assume you know he meant epithets – in this case, racial slurs not messages on tombstones.

Famous epitaphs come to mind: The beat goes on (Sonny Bono) and That’s all, folks! (Mel Blanc), for example. Grave marker messages can be heartfelt or clever, but I can’t think of any that would serve as nasty insults to a perfect stranger.

The bigger the audience, the more you need to pay attention to that filter. If necessary, slow down and dial it back to Cautious. If you’re only half-sure that big word is correct, substitute one you’re 100% sure is correct. You know thousands of words. Surely there’s one in there somewhere that will do the job. Oh – and you can increase the range of your headlights by building your vocabulary.

If you need a reminder, imagine an angry mob trying to heckle a victim with cries of:

Rest in peace!
In memoriam!
You angel in heaven!
Go home to the Lord, beloved sister!

Epitaphs make even worse epithets than epithets make epitaphs.

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So what!

interviewAny speech teacher will tell you that vocalized pauses weaken your presentation. You could be a corporate bigwig, a PTA committee head, or an international political figure. If your speech is full of fillers (uuh, aah, err, mmm, like, you know) your message will be less effective.

Speakers who address their audiences without vocalized pauses sound more prepared, confident, and credible. Everyone knows that, and the standard fillers have become passé.

A new vocalized pause is all the rage in both business and politics. Often used in interviews, it’s a common response to a touchy question. It’s as if the utterance gives the interviewee time to think … or to pivot off into an evasive non-answer. The word is:


As the first word in a sentence, So usually implies therefore, or as a result.

The event was sold out. So we went to a movie instead.

But it’s now the go-to response for any debate or interview question that might be awkward to answer. In fact, it often signals intent to avoid answering the question altogether. For example:

Q: How do you intend to balance the budget this year?
A: So, as you know, I’ve always been a champion of fiscal responsibility. Throughout my career as a public servant, I’ve sought the opinions of my constituents on this and related matters … [blah blah blah]

Q: Is this product going to be released on time?
A: So, quality is important to us – as I’m sure it is to all of you – and we’ve brought in several experts to guide our development process. Based on feedback from our customers, we’ve added several features we’re sure they will like …

Maybe the So response is just a bad habit and it doesn’t always indicate deception. But listen for it the next time you hear an interview or a business presentation.

Then judge for yourself whether the speaker’s verbal crime is being trendy (a misdemeanor) or lying (a felony).

So there.

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