Pet Peeve: “An Historic”

I know this seems an awfully petty thing to write about right now, but it’s really an example of something much more important, which is a lack of the use of critical thinking skills. Besides, it drives me absolutely insane and I have to vent somewhere.

I can’t stand it when people use the phrase “an historic”, as in, “this is an historic occasion” or, “this commemorates an historic event”. It bothers me especially because the primary offenders tend to be people other people look to for examples of proper usage, such as academics and pundits. I assume some misguided English teacher told them at some point that this was the correct thing to do, and there probably exists some textbook somewhere that gives the same ridiculous guidance, but if you have fallen under this same spell, please, just consider the following basic, logical, obvious train of thought:

1. The word “an” is used in front of a word that starts with a vowel or an unvoiced consonant.

2. In the vast majority of dialects of English, the “h” in “historic” is a voiced consonant. (If you happen to speak one of the few remaining dialects in which this “h” is unvoiced, it doesn’t bother me at all if you say “an historic”.)

At this point, QED, but if you are not convinced, consider the following:

Would you say “an house”, “an heart”, or “an hug”?

Do you think the part of speech matters? Would you say, “an hopeful sign” or “an hellish experience”?

Do you think it matters that the letter after the “h” is an “i”? Would you say, “an hill”, “an hippo”, or “an hip new saying”?

Would you even say, “an history”?

If you wouldn’t say (or write) any of those things, then why, oh why, would you use the annoying, abominable, anachronistic “an historic occasion”?

I say anachronistic because there was a time when commonly used dialects of English included many fewer voiced “h” sounds at the beginning of words. I am not an etymologist or a linguist, but I believe that is because many of those words came from French. In French, “history” is “histoire”, and the “h” is not voiced.

There are English words beginning with an unvoiced “h” (see how I used “an” there, because “unvoiced” starts with a vowel?) The one that springs first to mind is “honor”. It makes perfect sense to say “it would be an honor” or “she is an honorable person” (or “honour” and “honourable”, for my British, Canadian, Australian, Newnon-American friends). In those cases the “h” is unvoiced, which means those words begin with vowel sounds, even though they don’t begin with vowels, and it is therefore appropriate to use “an”.

Again, if you happen to speak one of the dialects in which the “h” at the beginning of “historic” is silent, it makes perfect sense to use “an” in front of it, and it doesn’t bother me. Similarly, if you have, for example, a very strong French accent, your usage of “an” in this situation would not cause my teeth to grind and my heartbeat to speed up.

If, however, you are a native speaker of English and you pronounce that “h” and yet put “an” in front of it, I will feel as if I want to punch you. The reason is that if you thought about it for a moment you would realize it makes no sense. There is no reason to do it except that you have heard other people do it. This indicates a blind following of perceived rules without any consideration of why or even if there actually is such a rule. It demonstrates a lack of critical thinking skills, or worse, a refusal to use them, and that is not at all a petty concern.

So please, especially if you are in a position to be an example for others, think about the words you use and why you use them. If you do that, you will never use the phrase “an historic” again, and you will no longer cause my blood pressure to spike. Thank you.

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Photos of Beautiful Places

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some fascinating and beautiful places, and today I just thought I would share some photos I’ve taken of a few of them. If you ever have a chance to go to any of these places, do it. Actually being there is far better than any photo.

Denali 2004

Denali (Mt. McKinley), Denali National Park, Alaska, USA, 2004

Grand Canyon 2005

Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, USA, 2005

Swiss Alps 2006

Somewhere in the Alps, Switzerland, 2006

Ohrid 2011

Lake Ohrid, Macedonia, 2011

Kotor 2014

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro, 2014

Bora Bora Rainbow 2017

Bora Bora, French Polynesia, 2017


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On Groups, Individuals, Brains, and Politics

One of the many things I have been puzzling over lately is the psychological phenomenon in which people have trouble remembering that groups are made up of individuals.

Examples include stories such as this one, about a town where people are shocked to discover that their vote to summarily expel all undocumented immigrants means a great friend and pillar of the community is getting deported, or this one, about people who are stunned that their vote to repeal the law that gave millions of people access to health care might result in the removal of their friends’ and neighbors’ access to health care.

My most acute awareness of this phenomenon has been when I have lived in countries in which many people were prone to anti-American jokes, statements, or even rants, which they would follow with, “but not you” or “you don’t seem like an American.” Probably most of us have experienced something like that after someone made a joke or a sweeping generalization about our ethnicity or gender or some other group to which we belong.

It makes sense for our brains to categorize things. It’s part of the pattern recognition processes that allow us to function as human beings. I don’t think it’s possible, or even desirable, for us to stop doing it, but I do think we need to be aware of it, and use that awareness to help us make decisions.

One group I might have a tendency to de-individualize in this way is Trump supporters. I do get exasperated with people like those in the stories mentioned above, and yes, in private, I sometimes (okay, frequently) make sweeping generalizations that may be unfair.

The thing is, I am aware, when I am doing that, that I am doing that. I understand that many people’s experiences in life have been very different from mine, and that those experiences have led them to draw very different conclusions. I have plenty of sympathy for them, and for their suffering.

Therefore, when I come across individuals who are Trump supporters, but who are also nice, hardworking, decent, even kind human beings, I am not particularly surprised. I am deeply, deeply frustrated, but not surprised.

I am frustrated because, long before the election, Donald Trump made it excruciatingly clear that he lies constantly, feels no loyalty to anyone, cares about no one but himself, is incompetent in almost every conceivable arena except self-promotion, and is in almost all respects abominable. All of these conclusions can reasonably be drawn solely from evidence gleaned from his own statements, both spoken and tweeted. I am frustrated not because I don’t understand people’s reasons, but because none of those reasons is good enough. They seem to see him so much as a member of their group that they ignore the fact that he is a particularly terrible individual.

Of course this is not true of all Trump supporters. Some are fully conscious of how horrible he is and like him all the more because of it, and some are confused or misguided for other reasons, but many have succumbed to this tendency to think in terms of groups instead of individual human beings. How do I know this is true of a number of people I have never even met? I know because when they discover that someone who entered the country illegally, or who can’t afford healthcare, is a nice, hardworking, decent, even kind human being, they are surprised.

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A Few Things I Recommend Reading

I find it difficult to write blogposts these days, mainly because every time I form a coherent thought I want to express, something else crazy happens and makes whatever I was about to say seem suddenly irrelevant. I frequently find the current state of my country and the world infuriating and/or terrifying, although I am still optimistic about the future, at least most of the time.

Since I can’t seem to write anything of much use, I thought I would just link to a few things other people have written that I have found most informative, explanatory, and otherwise helpful.

First on the list has to be Timothy Snyder’s indispensable, pocket-sized book, On Tyranny. I’m glad to see it is a bestseller right now. Everyone should read it.

Next would be the work of Sarah Kendzior. She knows authoritarianism very well, and she analyzes, explains, and predicts clearly and accurately.

The third that comes to mind is an article I read last week that has stayed with me. It is by Adam Gopnik, published in the New Yorker on May 25th, and called Emmanuel Macron’s French Lessons for Donald Trump. Here is a brief excerpt:

“What’s needed against Trump now is what has been found in France — not an ideologically narrow, politically focussed opposition but the widest possible coalition of people who genuinely value the tenets of democracy, meaning no more than the passionate desire to settle differences by debate and argument, rather than by power and cruelty and clan.”

I am hoping to remain optimistic.

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Just for Today: Puppies

I’ve been pretty good about keeping up with developments in the news, and I will get back to thinking about all the terrible and ridiculous things that are happening, but just for today, I need a break.

So, because puppies are the best thing in the world, here’s a puppy video compilation, and because I especially love boxers, here’s a boxer puppy video compilation, and because I like big dogs better than small dogs (sorry, teacup breed lovers – I am not one of you), here is a video about the 10 biggest dog breeds.



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An Exercise in Civic Responsibility

I recently served on a jury. It was my second time doing so. I served on a criminal case once many years ago. This one was a civil case.

I have never been one to try to avoid jury service. I have always believed in the importance of civic duty, that our rights come with responsibilities, and that our system doesn’t work unless we participate in it. In the current political climate, however, all of those things take on an extra resonance. I was glad to have the opportunity to do my part.

Many of my fellow jurors, as well as both the plaintiff and the defendant in the case, were immigrants. The array of accents would have seemed appropriate at the U.N. Any previous year, I would have noticed this fact, thought, “How American!”, smiled to myself, and thought no more about it. This year, I wondered if any of them were afraid, if they had friends or family members they were worried might be deported, or were considering canceling vacations for fear they might not be able to return home.

I didn’t mention any of those things, though. In fact, although many of us did let slip unflattering comments about the current president from time to time, the tone of conversation throughout the trial was light. No one would be going to jail as a result of our deliberations. We just had to decide if someone should pay someone else money, and if so, how much.

It was really a fairly interesting process. We had to determine how much of the responsibility for an injury that had occurred lay with the defendant, and how much with the plaintiff. We had to quantify it in specific numbers, assign actual percentages of blame to each side.

Deciding on those numbers was surprisingly easy to do. Our whole group took our task seriously, examined the evidence, followed the instructions from the judge, and ended up with very little disagreement about how much each person was to blame.

It turns out that when reasonable people without a personal agenda look at actual facts, even if they come from wildly different backgrounds and have varied perspectives, they can agree fairly easily on where the truth lies. I found that to be true the first time I was on a jury, too.

The difference was, the first time, I just thought, “Hey, the system may need improvement, but it seems it can work. Isn’t that interesting?” This time, I thought, “Elements of the system definitely need improvement, but it can work. I need to do whatever I can to protect it from being dismantled, and I need to encourage everyone I know to stand up for individual rights, and due process, and fair trials, and civic responsibility, and evidence and facts, so that this isn’t the last year a jury like this one is possible in America.”

I know how we got here. It was little by little, through apathy, and taking things for granted, and not bothering to make the effort to protect the liberties that so many have fought so hard to obtain for us. It won’t be easy to get back what we have let slide, but it can be done, if we each do our part.

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I just returned from an incredible vacation, one I’d planned for over a year. It was a cruise from Los Angeles to Tahiti, via Hawaii and numerous islands of French Polynesia. If you ever have a chance to do something like that, take it. I can’t come up with superlatives strong enough to describe it.

I did have some access to news, but not enough to ruin the experience. On 20 January 2017, when the abomination was being inaugurated, I was on the beautiful island of Fakarava, where the water, even on a cloudy day, looks like this:


Fakarava is an atoll, a very old volcanic island in which the original volcano part has sunk, and the land that is left is on the reef that once surrounded it, which means Fakarava is essentially a big lagoon protected by a reef with some land on it where people live.

On the lagoon side, the inside of the circle, the water is calm and perfectly clear. It is incredibly quiet, and the water just laps gently against the beach, like this:


On the ocean side, though, just a short walk away, the wind blows like this:


And waves crash against the edge of the reef, like this:


It’s so loud you have to shout to be heard. It seems like a completely different island.

I’m back home in L.A. now, readjusting, and everything seems pretty much the way I left it, but a little bit surreal. It struck me today that I’m metaphorically still on Fakarava. The circumstances of my life keep me fairly well protected, on the lagoon side. Nothing the new administration has done has affected me personally yet, except in terms of the empathy I have for others and the fear I have of what’s to come. Just a short distance away, though, wind is blowing and waves are crashing and it feels like a big storm is already approaching.

I’m so glad to see all the protesting and resistance of various kinds, and I’m going to join in however I can. I’m also going to keep the image of Fakarava in mind. If you have access to a protected lagoon, it’s easy to underestimate the size of the storm that’s coming, and I don’t want to let that happen to me. This is a hell of a storm. It could destroy the whole island. It will take all of us, especially those of us who aren’t facing the brunt of the wind, to keep that from happening, and there’s no time to lose.

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