An Interview with Margalit Fox, author of The Confidence Men

photo credit: Ivan Farkas

Margalit Fox is the author of three previous books: Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007); The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013), which received the William Saroyan Prize for International Writing; and Conan Doyle  for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer (Random House, 2018).

Ms. Fox enjoyed a 24-year-career at the New York Times, as an editor at the Sunday Book Review and a senior writer in the Obituary News department. She received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 2011 for feature writing, and in 2015 for beat reporting. She is one of four authors whose work is prominently featured in Steven Pinker’s 2014 best seller, The Sense of Style; in 2016, the Poynter Institute named her one of the six best writers in the Times’s history. With her Times colleagues, she stars in Obit, Vanessa Gould’s acclaimed documentary of 2017.

Her recently released nonfiction thriller, The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, published by Random House, tells the true story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, two British POWs who orchestrated an elaborate con game, centering on a handmade Ouija board, that let them flee a Turkish prison camp during World War I. Publishers Weekly called The Confidence Men a “marvelous history” and the Washington Post said it was “enthralling.” (@margalitfox; #FoxConfidenceMen)

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed The Confidence Men, both for the story itself, with its wonderful writing, and for its insights about the history of cons and mentalism. How did you discover the story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill?

Margalit Fox: Thank you, Ed! This book, my fourth, is especially dear to my heart because of the eye-popping nature of its true story—the tale of a prison break so bizarre it should never have worked. What delighted me every bit as much as the story itself was the way in which I encountered it: thumbing through a dusty, long-out-of-print book, looking for something else entirely.

About three years ago, when my previous book, Conan Doyle for the Defense, was in production, I began casting about for what to write next. I was vaguely thinking of doing something about the nature of identity as seen through the exploits of pathological impostors—people like Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me if You Can fame, or Ferdinand Demara, the subject of Robert Crichton’s 1959 biography, The Great Imposter, and the Hollywood adaptation, starring Tony Curtis, released the next year.

From my home library, I took down one of my favorite volumes: Grand Deception: The World’s Most Spectacular and Successful Hoaxes, Impostures, Ruses and Frauds, a 1955 anthology edited by Alexander Klein. I knew it contained at least one piece on imposture, but what caught my eye was an essay with the most tantalizing title I’ve ever seen on a work of nonfiction: “The Invisible Accomplice.” That essay, written by my protagonist, the Welsh artilleryman Elias Henry Jones, and originally published in the 1930s, recounted his escapade in brief. It led me back to The Road to En-dor, Jones’s book-length memoir of 1919.

I’ve always been a huge fan of POW-escape narratives, both on the screen and the printed page—hardy perennials like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Stalag 17. But Jones’s caper—rife with cunning, danger and moments of high farce that rival anything in Catch-22—was like nothing I’d seen before: It entailed no tunnelling, no weapons and no violence, all the stuff of traditional prison-camp breakouts.

Instead, Jones and his confederate, the Australian flier Cedric Hill, set in motion an ingeniously planned, daringly executed con game, worked bit by bit on their Ottoman captors—an elaborate piece of participatory theater entailing fake séances, magical illusions, secret codes and a hunt for buried treasure, with clues that appeared to have been planted by ghosts. If all went according to plan, the camp’s iron-fisted commandant would gleefully escort Jones and Hill along their escape route, with the Ottoman government paying their travel expenses. If their ruse was discovered, it would mean a bullet in the back for each of them.

Forget pathological imposters—here was my story! And to my wild delight, some quick research confirmed that with the exception of Hill’s own memoir, The Spook and the Commandant, published posthumously in 1975, there had been no book on the caper in the intervening hundred years. So in telling Jones and Hill’s story, I had not only the pleasure of levering it out of the crevice in history into which it had slipped, but also the privilege of a century’s hindsight, with its attendant advances in psychology. Those advances—in particular a spate of fascinating studies of magic, deception, confidence schemes and the implanting of false beliefs—let me answer the question that had beckoned since I first encountered Jones’s work: How could his escape plan, preposterous in all respects, actually have succeeded?

So began my enraptured involvement with Jones and Hill’s caper, one of the only known instances of a con game being used for good instead of ill. (On reading my proposal for The Confidence Men, my longtime literary agent, an elegant, erudite woman in her 70s, burst out: “Is this for real? These guys are wild!” I was happy to tell her that yes it is, and yes they are.)

EB: The Confidence Men was set roughly in the same time period as your book Conan Doyle for the Defense. Have you got a particular interest in British history of the early twentieth century or just in great mysteries of the past?

MF: I hadn’t planned to return to that period, so I can honestly say that the synchronicity is pure coincidence. But on second thought, one of the things that makes the early 20th century so fascinating (and a fount of wonderful real-life stories) is that it was very much a liminal time in social and intellectual history. On the one hand, you had the continued, hurtling onslaught of modern science, a development that had been a hallmark of the Victorian Age. On the other, you had the persistence—or, more accurately, the renewal, brought about by the Great War—of mass interest in spiritualism.

What seems counterintuitive to us, looking back from our 21st-century prospect, is that some of the most influential figures in both movements were one and the same. The distinguished English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, for instance, wrote a deeply influential book, Raymond (1916), about his efforts—successful, he believed—to contact the spirit of his son, who had been killed in Flanders. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a trained physician and the creator of the single most rationalist character in world letters, was also an ardent spiritualist.

Though the spiritualist beliefs of men like these look risible today, it’s crucial to remember that the mass-communications technologies of the period—radio, the telephone, the phonograph—had advanced to the point where they were beyond the ken of most laymen: To the general public, they seemed to be quasi-magical devices that let voices travel through the ether as if by magic, and bygone men and women speak, via wax cylinders, as if from beyond the grave. So among men of science of the period, an authentic empirical question was this: Given technology’s power to do all these miraculous things, why shouldn’t communication across the ultimate divide—between the world of the living and the world of the dead—be possible, too? I now realize that Conan Doyle and his cohort are the connective tissue that links my previous book to this one.

In addition, what unites all my books, from Talking Hands (about a team of linguists decoding a sign language newly emerged in a Deaf Bedouin community) through The Riddle of Labyrinth (the story of the race to decipher the mysterious Bronze Age script known as Linear B) to Conan Doyle for the Defense (about Sir Arthur’s real-life investigation of a wrongful murder conviction) is that they’re all heuristic: They all center on the step-by-step process of advancing from an agnostic state to one of knowing. All involve intellectual treasure hunts of one sort or another—and in the case of The Confidence Men, an actual, cunningly designed treasure hunt, engineered to spring our heroes from an isolated prison camp high in the mountains of Anatolia.

map credit: Jonathan Corum

EB: What was the most difficult aspect of this project? I was amazed at the level of historical detail.

MF: How lovely, thanks! I don’t want to say that this book practically wrote itself, because (a) no book is easy, and (b) that would be the most hubristic tempting of the Fates I could imagine. However … one of the most remarkable things about this story is that it cleaved naturally into the classic three-act structure: the men’s imprisonment, their longing for escape, and their building of the Ouija board in Act I; the conception and playing of the con game in Act II (culminating at the end of the act in a disaster that capsizes their entire plan on the eve of their escape); and the dark turn the story takes in Act III, with our heroes attempting to salvage their plan by having themselves committed to a Turkish insane asylum, before the triumphant resolution.

I literally had to do no restructuring of the story whatsoever to create the basic armature of the book—something that almost never happens when one writes narrative nonfiction. I also spent about a year, as I do for all my books, reading background literature on a host of subjects, including the relevant work in psychology and social history; the history of the war’s Ottoman theater—far less well known to Americans than the Western Front—along with memoirs by other POWs in that theater. But even so, I found I was able to interleave the material from these works in and out of the very sturdy structure that Jones and Hill’s story had given me.

So in the end, perhaps because I’ve been researching and writing books for some 20 years now, I found that The Confidence Men leapt onto the page with a kind of unitary ease that I hadn’t experienced before. And now that the book is out, it’s become apparent that its three-act structure is readily discernible by others: I’ve been spending a very happy summer in conference calls with a string of Hollywood producers who want to option it—a fascinating kind of occupational anthropology for an old-school print gal like me.

EB: In some ways, this story of pseudoscience, cons, and spiritualism is a cautionary tale as well as a thrilling escape story. Is there a lesson here for people today?

MF: Indeed, Jones intended The Road to En-dor to be a cautionary tale about how remarkably easy it is to become a spiritualist charlatan, a species of war profiteer that flourished between 1914 and 1918 to wring dividends from gold-star families. (Jones took his title from “En-Dor,” Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem of 1919. In it, Kipling, who had lost a son in World War I, decries such mountebanks: “The road to En-dor is easy to tread/For Mother or yearning Wife./There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead/As they were even in life. …” Kipling’s title invokes the biblical Witch of Endor, from the First Book of Samuel, whom Saul asks to conjure Samuel’s spirit.)

Though I hadn’t set out to relate Jones’s story to our own time, it turned out to be remarkably relevant. As I’ve written in The Confidence Men and elsewhere, the process by which a master manipulator instills and sustains belief (a subtle psychological art known as “coercive persuasion”) impeccably explains the wide popular delusions that have suffused our post-2016 landscape—from the contention that top Democrats are running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor to the belief that Covid vaccinations scramble the recipient’s DNA. As Michael Dirda of The Washington Post wrote in his thoughtful review of The Confidence Men: “We are all vulnerable to psychological manipulation. More than ever, with no sure footing in our rabidly media-dominated world, the only sensible course left us is to tread very, very carefully.”

EB: As a writer, what do you keep foremost when you are drafting and revising? I think in some ways being a writer is like being a magician, where you have to attend to your task and to the audience.

MF: I’ve always loved best the two endpoints that bracket the actual writing of a book. The first comes after I’ve spent that initial year reading the literature. At the end of that time, I’ll have anywhere from five hundred to a thousand typed pages of notes. I then go through them, page by page, on a very large table (I usually hole up in the library at Columbia University, to which I have blessed access as an alumna of their journalism school), coding every paragraph thematically and marking the quotes and anecdotes I want to use. This process can take days—even weeks—but at the end of it, there is the great pleasure of getting to see what Henry James called the figure in the carpet. That gives me the first strong sense of what the structure and content of the book will be.

Fast-forward a year or so, to when the entire first draft has been written. The thing I love most of all in the entire process is the buffing and polishing one does at this stage—wielding finer and finer grits of sandpaper until the text shines like a mirror.

EB: You made your journalistic bones, so to speak, in obituaries, which is a fairly concise form of storytelling. Do you see some parallels between writing engaging obituaries and thrilling long form histories?

MF: Since I was trained in the Chomskyan tradition of linguistic innatism, I can say that I truly believe all writers come into the world hard-wired for either long-form or short-form work. I happen to be a long-form writer in my bones, and never in my wildest professional dreams did I imagine that I’d spend three decades on daily newspapers. But I can assure all would-be book writers that that life turns out to be sublime training for long-form writing … because a properly written newspaper article is simply a book in microcosm: A story of a thousand words, say, has only to be gridded up a hundred times until you find you’re holding a book in your hands.

The reason for this is fascinating, and it harks back to the early days of modern American journalism. The structure of the contemporary news story was established during the Civil War, thanks to the prevalence of one of those quasi-miraculous communications technologies: the telegraph. For the first time, war correspondents did their reporting in the field and then cabled their stories back to their editors in Boston or Baltimore or New York or wherever. But as with many new technologies, this one was buggy, and the lines often went down. As a result, reporters learned to triage their dispatches, sending the broadest-based, most essential information first, so that if the lines did go down, at least their editors would have basic information to put in the next day’s paper. If the lines came back up again later, the reporters would send finer and finer-grained information in succeeding dispatches—material that it would be nice for readers to have, but that wasn’t essential. And … voila! Thus emerged the classic “inverted-pyramid” structure of the modern news story—broad information at the top, progressively finer stuff at the bottom—which remains the standard today.

This structure has endured unchanged for a century and a half because it’s cognitively perfect: It is an information-processing model, pure and simple. Anyone who’s ever been a teacher knows this: You don’t start the semester (or an individual lesson) with the background detail. You start with the broad stuff, and work your way down over time. Nonfiction books turn out to rely on this model just as heavily: They’re identical in structure to news stories because to be accessible to the reader, they have to be—the only truly significant difference is one of bulk.

A last historical note: It’s absolutely fascinating to go back in the historical clips and see the inverted-pyramid form taking shape. If you look at the coverage of Lincoln’s assassination, for instance, you can see immediately that the form was still in transition in 1865: Some newspapers were already using the inverted pyramid, while others continued the former tradition of straight-ahead, leaden chronology. In those papers, you’ll get stories—shocking to read today—that start, in effect [my paraphrase]: “The president, Mrs. Lincoln and a party of distinguished friends sallied out last night to Ford’s Theater to see that entertaining play, Our American Cousin.” There follow several more paragraphs of blah-blah-blah-ing about the play, the theater party and the cast. Only then, in about Paragraph 4 or 5, does the reporter get around to “a shot rang out.” Talk about burying your lede—the cardinal sin of newswriting today!

EB: Along with your work at the Times, your background included training as a cellist and as a linguist. How do those experiences make themselves felt in your writing?

MF: I always tell young journalists that a life in music is the single best preparation for being I writer that I can conceive of: It gives you an acute sense of tone and color and cadence and pacing—all essential arrows in the writer’s quiver. The number of serious musicians one finds in big-city newsrooms is striking: At the Times, we have a delightful chamber-music group, in which I still play, called the Qwerty Ensemble. Our rehearsals have been in abeyance as a result of Covid, of course, but we’re all eager to resume playing together.

And needless to say, my linguistics training—I did bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field at SUNY-Stony Brook—helps me as a writer every hour of every day. When I was studying linguistics (long before I had any thoughts of a writing career) I was especially drawn to the subfields of poetics and stylistics—the analysis of what’s happening metrically, syntactically, semantically, phonetically, et al., that makes literary language resonate in the particular ways it does. Even now, nearly 40 years after that education, the conscious awareness of those factors aids me immeasurably in writing, particularly in the 10,000-grit sanding process described above.

EB: Did you ever have aspirations to be a mentalist or con artist? Or do you now?

MF: Good Lord, no! (Unless you’re willing to bake me a cake with a file in it.)

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you find many more untold stories.

MF: It’s been my pleasure, Ed. But I’m now fascinated by the wonderful paradox contained in your last sentence. Any story that I’m lucky enough to come across in the literature, as I did with The Confidence Men, is by definition a “told” story. If it were truly “untold,” then I’d have no way of finding it to lever it out of that historical crevice.

This actually brings us back to pathological imposters. One reason (besides stumbling upon Jones’s story) that I ultimately decided not to write about them is that we can only ever know about the ones who slip up: the men and women who get caught in the act and have books and articles written about them. The most brilliantly successful imposters remain, by definition, indetectable.

So through the twin paradoxes of the “told story” and the “known imposter” we’ve come full circle!

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An Interview with Nicole Walker, author of Processed Meat

NICOLE WALKER’s books include After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Normal School and has appeared in multiple editions of Best American Essays.

Walker grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and earned a BA from Reed College and both an MFA and a PhD from the University of Utah. Today she is a professor at Northern Arizona University in where she directs the MFA and a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts

Her most recent book is Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, available from Torrey House Press.

You can find Nicole Walker’s website here.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed the essays in Processed Meats. Can you tell us a little about the title of the collection?

Nicole Walker: The book went through many title drafts: Salmon of the Apocalypses and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse were among the two, but the apocalypse theme seemed to hit a little too close to home once the pandemic started. A pandemic isn’t quite an apocalypse, but making light of apocalypse when so many people were suffering felt offkey. The phrase “processed meats” covers so many aspects of the book—the way that so much food is processed and served in the U.S., the way raising children in a culture with so much conflicting advice feels like we process our kids as much as help them grow, the way so much of that advice is afflicted upon women for how to eat and cook and live. But there’s also the philosophical angle to the book that suggests we process our traumas and disasters by working through them, by being patient. That work and patience is akin to cooking—the small measures we take to get through the day are the energies that help of process those harder times.

EB: Processed Meats is very much a pandemic book. How did the pandemic affect you as a writer?

NW: I know a lot of people had a hard time writing during the pandemic, but, just like cooking, writing helps me process hard things. I wrote a lot. This spring, while teaching, I assigned myself 1000 words a day for a novel I’m working on. There’s something about being trapped at home that is very helpful to getting work done. I think of Salinger and how he was such a recluse. Of course, as far as we know, he didn’t write much in his most reclusive years. A writer needs some balance between real life and brain or it’s all just brain food and that’s only good for zombies. As we’ve begun to poke our heads back into the world, I’ve noticed how thirsty I’ve been just to drink in the presence of other humans. Zoom offers a lot of benefits but observing human behavior in its natural environment is not one of them. Everyone is weird on zoom. They’re weird in real life too but in a less self-conscious way.

The book went through a substantial reworking. Although disaster was always a primary theme of the book, immediate disaster wasn’t the central theme. I am grateful I had the chance to recast the book to touch on something we all shared. Individual disasters matter but a collective disaster made an impact on all of us. I weirdly feel honored to have had a chance to talk about that impact.

EB: The subtitle is “Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster” What is the relation between food and disaster—and coping?

NW: You anticipated my earlier answer! I spend a lot of time thinking about valences of words. “Coping” is exactly what we do when we try to navigate disaster. You put one food in front of the other. You chop one more onion. You make meal after meal and clean kitchen after kitchen until at some point, coping isn’t just coping, it’s living. Coping and living are two sides of the same coin. Once you start dancing in the kitchen, you know which you’re doing.

EB: Several of the pieces are about the body in sickness and wellness. Should we be thinking about food and health more? Differently?

NW: Just as with raising kids, there is so much advice on how to do it ‘right.’ Eggs are bad. Then good. Then bad again. I think they’re back to being good for you. But, because we are often far flung from our families and traditions, we have to rethink everything we do and everything we eat. It can be exhausting. But it can be good too. There’s something to be said for considering every choice and thinking through is this healthy for my body, for the planet, for my kids. Raising kids and feeding them are nearly synonymous, at least in the early years. They say that choosing what to eat is the only choice little kids get. I try to read as much as I can about nutrition and agricultural effects on the environment. Then, I like to give my kids as many options as possible within that research. More is better with both research and choice and I believe in people’s right to choose with enough research. So, I guess this is a very complicated answer to your question but Processed Meats provides some of the science behind our eating and agricultural habits. It doesn’t aim to be didactic. It says, now that you know the consequences of what you’re choosing to eat (and do and drive), choose well.

EB: You talk about some your past food experiences. What food lore do you want to pass on?

NW: Most of my food lore is about growing food more than cooking it. My mom always told me to plant peas in February. Usually, I forget. Who thinks about gardening in February? But I remembered this year and now, after snow, wind, deep freeze, the peas are going strong. My mom also said to pinch off early flowers from tomatoes so the energy can go into the plant. And then, when you have a lot of tomatoes, pinch off some of the flowers still so the energy can go into ripening the fruit you already have.

Also: use a lot of butter. My daughter cooks eggs in a pan without using any fats at all. I have to scrub that pan. Also, butter is delicious.

EB: For you, what is the best thing about food?

NW: The idea of abundance. I love going to the CSA (community supported agriculture), picking up my vegetables, laying them out on the table, cutting the tops off the beets, putting the greens in the fridge, roasting the roots. I love it when there are seven fresh carrots laid upon the table. I also love that, when I turn around, five of them are gone because my kids love fresh carrots. They like old carrots too but fresh carrots go quickly around here.

EB: What’s the worst thing?

NW: While there is sometimes an abundance of delicious vegetables, there’s often a scarcity of ideas of what to cook. I hate running out of ideas of what to make for dinner. As the end of the book articulates, chicken, chicken, chicken becomes the go-to and stand-by and the distinctly uninspired. We eat a lot of chicken and carrots. Sometimes, I run low on ideas for what to make because my kids don’t always love the same thing as the other. Sometimes, I’m just busy and what? There’s more chicken? Whoohoo. I hate the thought of going to the store too for one ingredient that a fancy new recipe has. But, after reading Tod Davies’ Jam Today and talking with her about Processed Meats, I remembered that shooting for culinary perfection is its own flaw. So, when I made asparagus soup but had not the sorrel the recipe called for, I used dandelion leaves, which I had in abundance reminding me that looking for what is abundant around you instead of searching out that which is scarce is the key to happiness.

EB: Can you tell us about some of the other projects you are working on?

NW: One of the things I mentioned above was some of the difficulties of families being far flung. I’m working on a book about how home shapes the kind of climate change future we see and how we cope with the effects of climate change and how loss of homes uproots us from that connection to land. Some of the essays have titles like “How to Be Happy When Your Favorite Tree Is Dying” and “Effluent: What Can We Do with All this Human Waste.” I try to be realistic about climate change and things like “going home.” That realism sometimes leads to hard reflection. It also sometimes leads to absurd realizations. I like the idea that even when confronted with hard things, we can cope with them with humor, as well as with delicious foods.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NW: Thank you so much, Ed! I loved these questions and had fun answering them. I’m so grateful to you for reading and talking about Processed Meats!

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An Interview with Nicholas Buccola , author of The Fire is Upon Us

Nicholas Buccola is a writer specializing in American political thought. His book, The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America (Princeton University, 2019) was the winner of the 2020 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction.

Buccola has MA and PhD degrees from the University of Southern California and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Oregonian, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, Dissent and Reason.

He is also the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York University Press, 2012) and the editor of The Essential Douglass: Writings and Speeches (Hackett, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2016).

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on the Oregon Book Award and all the other accolades The Fire is Upon Us is receiving. I really enjoyed the book. What motivated you to dig into the lives of the lives of Baldwin and Buckley so deeply?

Nicholas Buccola: Thank you so much, Ed. I was really honored to see The Fire Is Upon Us (Fire) honored along so many great books (including yours). Many years ago, I watched the BBC recording of the 1965 Cambridge debate between Baldwin and Buckley and I became transfixed. It was such a dramatic and important moment. At the high tide of the civil rights movement and on an international stage, you have “the poet of the civil rights revolution” (as Malcolm X described Baldwin) and “the Saint Paul of the conservative movement” (as one of Buckley’s biographers described him) debating race and the American dream. The debate itself struck me as historically and politically compelling and as I dug into the archives, I soon realized that I had a much longer story to tell. Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries – born in the same city, in fact – and the “backstory” of their life experiences and intellectual biographies proved to be the heart of the book. By weaving their stories together, I hope the book reveals things that might be missed otherwise.

EB: A striking moment for me was the debate that involves Baldwin and Malcolm X and the emphasis on identity as living free of myth and ideology. Would you say that is central to Baldwin’s message?

NB: Yes, I see that as one of Baldwin’s key insights. Time after time, Baldwin explained that what concerned him most were “grave questions of self” or “questions of identity” and how those questions were related to the human quest for freedom and fulfillment. Baldwin’s basic idea was that human beings construct their identities in ways that they think will make them feel safe. One of the primary ways we tend to do this, Baldwin argued, is by relying on the idea of status; by trying to figure out ways to feel superior to others. Ideologies of exclusion and inhuman ways we treat one another – large and small – have their roots in this desire for safety. As Baldwin often said, the roots of racism are within the racist, not within the object of his hatred. The same is true of homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and so on. Baldwin did not think any of us would wake up one fine day and fully liberate ourselves from the myths and ideologies by which we live. But he did call on all of us to engage in the sort of ruthless introspection each day that might allow us to treat ourselves and each other with greater dignity than we might otherwise.

EB: Reading some of the arguments that Buckley and others made about stability, protest, Western culture, and limiting voting, it’s hard not to see their echoes today. Is Buckley really the key figure in American conservative movement?

NB: Many readers have been struck by the parallels between the ideas Buckley developed and popularized and the contemporary American Right. I try to be careful about overstating Buckley’s importance and making overly bold causal claims about the connections between his ideas and actions and the political world we see. With that caveat, I do argue in the book that Buckley played an outsized role in American political culture. He edited the country’s most important conservative magazine (National Review), he had a syndicated newspaper column published thrice weekly in over one hundred newspapers, he was on the road speaking forty weeks of the year, he was a constant presence on radio and television, he had the ear of many leading conservative politicians, and he played a key role as a kind of “gatekeeper” and organizer in the conservative movement. From this position of considerable influence, Buckley had a great deal of influence. In the book, I provide a deep dive into his racial politics and surrounding issues and many readers have found plenty of reason to credit (or blame) Buckley for some of what we see on the contemporary American Right.

EB: I enjoyed the way you brought out the parallels between Buckley and Baldwin and the use of the alternating narratives. Was it difficult to keep the two in balance?

NB: Yes and no. I feel incredibly fortunate in the sense that the material really told me how to tell the story. The fact that Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries made the “parallel lives” approach look rather well. And I was also fortunate that both men were compelling characters who led lives that were not only interesting, but also lives at the center of their respective movements. They were both so prolific as public and private writers so I felt like I could glimpse into their minds almost every day as they were living through and shaping this history. On the question of “balance,” there were moments when that was challenging. If, for example, one character had an especially interesting year while the other did not, I had to come up with ways of altering my “weave” technique to tell the story in the most compelling way. Sometimes that meant I would stick with one character a bit longer before switching back to the other a bit later in the timeline. I never had a real formula in mind. I did not, for example, track how many pages I was writing about Baldwin and then try to give Buckley “equal time.” I let the material guide me. In the end, I feel good about where we ended up. It’s a weighty book and earlier drafts were even weightier. I am grateful to my editor, Rob Tempio, and peer reviewers for helping me find places to trim.

EB: I hope you’ve had an opportunity to teach some of the material from the book, and I wonder what the reaction of today’s student is to the issues of the 1960s?

NB: I have had the opportunity to teach some of this material. I was able to teach a seminar on Baldwin and Frederick Douglass and it was the most extraordinary teaching experience of my life. Although the class was about two figures I have studied for a long time, it was probably the course in which I did the least amount of talking. The students were so engaged with these wonderful writers, so I got to sit back and listened to their brilliance for a few hours a week. What a joy. Baldwin’s words strike the students as so prophetic and urgent. I am now teaching him in my Introduction to Political Theory class (“Great Political Thinkers”) because I think he belongs right there alongside Plato and the other major thinkers. I think today’s students are fascinated by the politics and culture of the 1960s. Especially in the last year or so, they sense that they are living in a world in which the political culture is undergoing some major shifts. They see there is much to learn from other moments in which the ground was shifting beneath the feet of the culture.

EB: If Baldwin and Buckley were magically transported to the present, what do you suppose they would say?

NB: Oh wow. There’s a thought! They were both remarkably consistent as thinkers so I do not imagine their political philosophies would have changed very much as a result of the things that have happened since each man died (Baldwin in 1987 and Buckley in 2008). While I think Baldwin had the same moral lodestar throughout his life – the idea that we ought to pursue the conditions under which each human being can be free and find fulfillment – I think time did radicalize his thinking on how this might be achieved. Baldwin was always suspicious of ideologies and oversimplification so I resist the idea that he would fit neatly into one of our political boxes. But I do think he would call on us to think through the radical implications of the moral idea that each human being has the right to live in a world in which their dignity is respected and protected. That world is not this world and we have a long way to go. On the other side of the story, it would have been fascinating to see how Buckley would have navigated the Trump era. On the one hand, he did not like Trump personally and I think he would have been critical of Trump’s disdain for norms, institutions, and the rule of law. On the other hand, I think it is clear that he would have liked a great deal about Trump’s politics. Buckley was no stranger to the politics of racial resentment that was so key to Trump’s rise and he was, in fact, one of its architects and promoters. And he probably would have also been tempted – as so many conservatives were – to put up with Trump because he appreciated some of the outcomes he delivered (e.g., tax cuts, conservative judges, etc.) If you figure out how to magically transport them back, please let me know. I have some questions. Drinks are on me.

EB: How did writing the book change you as a writer and scholar? What’s next for you?

NB: This book has been a transformative experience for me in so many ways. Everything I had written before this was really for an academic audience of fellow “experts” or “insiders.” When I started doing the research for the book, I knew I could write another book like that, but I also knew I shouldn’t write another book like that. It was tempting to stick with what I knew how to do, but the material was pushing me in this other direction. What I had in front of me was a compelling story that was historically important and politically urgent. My job was to tell this story. This meant abandoning most of the forms and techniques of my training as a political theorist. But once I got in the groove, I never looked back and I don’t know if I ever will. I am still doing political theory (or political philosophy), which is, at its core, about asking big questions about how we ought to live together. I am going to keep doing that, but my primary method will be to address those big questions by way of (hopefully) compelling narratives.

Nowadays, I am at work on another book that looks at the same era I examined in Fire but from a different angle. As I worked on this book, I was struck time and again by the use of “freedom” or “liberty” by both the civil rights revolutionaries and the conservative counterrevolutionaries. These groups were both operating under banners of freedom, but they were viewing each other with suspicion and often downright hostility. I am using the “weave” technique once again to figure out what we can learn about the meaning of freedom – a concept we are still arguing about – by thinking about these two movements together. Who knows, this may be the second book in a trilogy about this era. We’ll see. The good news is I’ve never loved writing more than I do now and I think these stories are urgent for our politics.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NB: Thanks so much for the opportunity. These are great questions and I look forward to visiting Ashland to talk about the book!

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An Interview with Ellie Anderson of the Ashland Public Library

Ellie Anderson is Head of Adult Services at Ashland Branch of Jackson County Library Services, which she joined in 2020. She has a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University and a BA in theatre from Oberlin College, and she has worked in libraries in Monterey and San Mateo County in California, and in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Ellie. I suspect I’m not alone in saying that the e-books and audiobooks were two of the things that got me through the COVID lockdown of the last year. Have you noticed a shift in borrowing habits towards those resources?

Ellie Anderson: Thank you, Ed! I’m so glad the library’s electronic offerings have been helpful to you. E-books and e-audiobooks have been popular for some time, but COVID lockdown certainly encouraged new people to take advantage of how easy it is to access books and other materials electronically. Our library patrons love physical books, too, and are happy to be able to browse in the library again, but e-books have expanded options for a lot of people.

EB: What is the Library2Go?

EA: Library2Go is one of the ways library card holders can access our collection of e-books and other electronic resources. It uses the Overdrive platform, which may be familiar to long-time library users, and offers over 35,000 titles to check out on a variety of devices. In addition to Library2Go, library patrons should also take a look at Hoopla, Kanopy and TumbleBooks.

EB: As I explored a bit, I found all sort sorts of things available in the Library2Go.  What’s available in addition to audiobooks and e-books?

EA: We recently added over 3,300 e-magazines in multiple languages to our Library2Go service, accessible through the Overdrive platform. Library card holders can also stream e-books, e-audio, movies, TV shows, and music with the Hoopla App. Kanopy is a source for indie films, classics, and world cinema, as well as The Great Courses and PBS content. All the services I’ve mentioned offer content for children as well as adults, but Tumble Book Library specializes in animated books and read-alongs for grades K-6.

EB: Can folks use the Library 2 Go Resources on any type of device?

EA: Pretty much. Most of these electronic resources can be used on Apple and Android devices, as well as on a laptop or desktop computer. Library2Go e-books and e-audiobooks are compatible with Kindle devices as well. If you are using a smartphone or tablet, you will need to download an app (the Libby App for Library2Go) and do a little bit of setup the first time you access our collection but it is pretty straightforward.

EB: I noticed a new interface. What prompted the switch?

EA: As the services libraries provide grow and change, it makes sense for the ways we interact with our communities to change too. Our new website is designed to highlight those programs and services while making it easy for visitors to find the information or library materials that brought them to our site.

EB: Are the materials available forever or do they eventually go away, just as books wear out?

EA: That depends on the publisher. Some titles are a one-time purchase for the library and others are purchased for a certain time frame or number of uses. Since electronic materials don’t show wear and tear the way a physical book or DVD would, publishers and libraries have had to come up with new ways of doing business together for these formats.

EB: If people need more information or help getting started, what should they do?

EA: Library’s website,, is the best starting point. You can access Library2Go and the other services we’ve talked about here and find self-help guides for your device here. If you still have questions, please feel free to call or stop by the library or contact our Digital Services specialists for a one-on-one appointment. Digital Services can be reached at or by phone at 541 734-3990.

EB: Any personal recommendations? What are you reading?

EA: I’ve just started reading The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, which is a novel based on the real-life Packhorse Librarians who brought books and information to small communities in Rural Kentucky during the Depression. Next on my list is The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, a fantasy story about an orphanage for magical children and the power of chosen family.

EB: Thanks for sharing all this with us.

EA: Anytime. Librarians love to spread the word about our services.

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An Interview with Colby Elliott of Last Word Audio

COLBY ELLIOTT is an award-winning audiobook narrator and the talent behind ​​LAST WORD AUDIO. Originally from central Nebraska, he has a Master’s degree from The University of Denver and taught theatre before becoming a narrator. He was a finalist for a 2017 Audie Award for his narration of Coffee at Luke’s: An Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest and won an Earphones Award for Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders.

You can follow him at @colbyelliott

Ed Battistella: Tod Davies introduced me to your work on Snotty Saves the Day and I’ve become a fan. I’m looking forward to the whole History of Arcadia series. How did you get into the audiobook business?

Colby Elliott: I fell in love with audiobooks at a young age, listening to cassettes like Tales of Poe narrated by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone on my Sony Walkman while walking to school in North Platte, Nebraska. Spooky stories made for a brisk walking pace.

As far as making audiobooks, I’d been a technical theatre teacher for a number of years and because I’d worked with microphones and digital audio workstations, I just kind of figured out that I could do it. So, I recorded an audiobook in my spare time, sent it to the authors and after they okay’d it, sent it directly to Audible. One became two, which then became nearly 40 now.

EB: I noticed that you do a variety of dialects and accents. In a book with lots of voices, how do you keep from getting lost?

CE: I always try to create a “Character Bible” for each project. Every character entry will have information like musical voice range (Tenor I through Bass II), placement within the mouth and throat, descriptors of different regions and accents or even occasionally actors whom I might keep front-of-mind while performing.

It can get confusing. It’s funny how there always seems to be “that one character” who makes a brief appearance in Chapter 2 and then mysteriously reappears in Chapter 42. At those times the Character Bible is vital!

EB: I notice a lot of popular culture in Last Word’s releases: Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound, The Psychology of Joss Whedon, and more. Does Last Word Audio have a specialty?

CE: We definitely concentrate on projects that are interesting to the geek lit and nerd lit worlds. Comic books, role-playing games, and pop culture are definitely things that are fun and rewarding to produce.

But looking at Last Word’s longer scope, many books tend to happen in distinct artistic clusters. There was a definite Comic Book Period, a more general Pop Culture Period, and most recently a Table-top Roleplaying Period. And in between are authors and publishers that I love to read and want to support their message. Tod Davies of Exterminating Angel Press and television producer and writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach both spring to mind. They have wonderful messages within their art and it’s a joy to narrate.

EB: How do you choose products for Last Word Audio?

CE: Every book I’ve chosen for Last Word Audio does have a point to it. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as “Bill Fitzhugh writes wonderful characters that I relish playing,” but it can also be as complex as, “I want to tell the history of the tabletop roleplaying industry because playing those games made want to become a narrator.”

I can usually tell if a book is one I want to do. If, while I’m reading, I think, “Why doesn’t everyone know about THIS? They SHOULD!” I know I have an audiobook I want to produce.

I’m also keen to find authors in the places I live and support them, especially if it’s a genre I haven’t yet recorded. Scott Lininger’s Guesswork was my first YA title when I lived in Colorado, My Peculiar Family was my first horror book, and Matt Herring’s Monkey See, Sea Monkey was my first Middle Grades fiction, the latter two done when I lived in New England.

EB: What’s the toughest thing about recording and producing audiobooks? I tried out once and could barely make it through a paragraph without a flub.

CE: It requires an awful lot from the actor for sure. Being “in the moment” for hour-long recording sessions can be grueling…and exciting. When you’re in the middle of a scene and the characters are saying things that bring you to tears or laughter, it’s just amazing.

And as far as flubs go, they are part-and-parcel of the performance. If you aren’t making errors from time to time in the studio, you aren’t committing to the emotional truth of the characters. In the moment, a “the” can become an “a,” which happens a lot, but weirder mistakes can happen, too. A narrator might see one word and say another. Then it’s the actor’s responsibility to “punch back in” to the recording mix and correct the error while also trying to achieve the same tone and energy. It can be a challenge!

EB: What makes a great audiobook? The writing? The narration?

CE: A beautiful alchemy between the two is where the art happens. I’ve listened to very average prose elevated by a wonderful narrator and I’ve heard wonderful writing absolutely throttled by a bad performance. For me, a great audiobook is one where I make discoveries at every level of the project’s narration. I’m initially inspired by the pre-reading, the performance itself reveals the characters inner lives, and finally, in the editing I discover ways to mold the performance, giving each scene poignancy.

EB: You’ve got sample of audiobooks on your website. What should folks try first?

CE: I always recommend Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders for its characters and story. It’s a cool whodunit with moments made memorable by musical elements.

For those who love fantasy I think Snotty Saves the Day is an absolutely perfect place to start in the way it melds folktales, legends, and myth. A fortunate consequence of producing things in “periods” is that once a listener finds a title they like, there are usually a few others ready to be put in their listening queue.

EB: When I lived in Nebraska, I fell in love with Darren McGavin’s reading of the Travis McGee books. Who are some of your favorite narrators?

CE: Some of the classic British narrators really resonate with me. Patrick Tull who narrated the Aubrey/ Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, Frederick Davidson/David Case (the same narrator and pseudonym) narrating the Harry Flashman series. More recently, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith reading the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich are among my favorite listens and relistens. I love American narrators Susan Bennett, Barbara Rosenblatt and Tavia Gilbert on the female side, and Bronson Pinchot and the late, great Bill Dufris are always a joy for male voices.

Honestly, so many of my colleagues have narrative techniques that I love and want to emulate. I like Dion Graham’s silky smoothness and Julia Whelan’s deftness with romantic scenes, especially when reading her own work (not easy).

EB: I notice that LAST WORD AUDIO’s logo is a gorilla wearing earphones. Can you clue us in on that?

CE: When I first started Last Word Audio, I was concentrating on finding back-list titles, a bit like a literary archeologist, and I thought my audiobook recordings would be “The Last Word” on any book.

The gorilla in the headphones came about when I was talking to an artist-friend about logos, we wanted it to be formidable…but vaguely cuddly and cartoonish. Big and imposing but…relaxed.

It’s the 800-pound gorilla who is, in reality, a laidback dude who hangs out in the mists on the mountainside reading his books.

And I’m told if one squints a bit…it looks a little like me.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CE: My pleasure and thank you for listening!

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An Interview with Tod Davies: Talking about Talking Books

TOD DAVIES is the author of The History of Arcadia series: Snotty Saves the DayLily the SilentThe Lizard Princess and now Report to Megalopolis: or The Post-modern Prometheus, which Kirkus Reviews called “A philosophical fable.”

Tod is also the author two cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered.

Along with that, she’s the editorial director of Exterminating Angel Press and EAP: The Magazine. Tod lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their two dogs in Colestin, Oregon.

Ed Battistella: You have recently released the audiobook version of Snotty Saves the Day produced by Last Word Audio and read by Colby Elliott. What motivated you to release Snotty as an audiobook?

Tod Davies: I’ve been wanting to get more into audiobooks in a big way, since I think they are one of the fastest growing platforms for books. But I especially wanted to do The History of Arcadia series that way—it’s particularly good content for an aural experience, since it’s a bunch of different voices chiming in on how the world can change, and why. The series was conceived as a unified theme told by many different types of literary voice, including the early spoken story of fairy tales, legends, and myths. I knew it would be fascinating to hear, as well as see it on the page.

EB: Do you think more people are listening to audio books, these days? I know I am.

TD: Oh, absolutely. Anecdotally, some of my closest friends are addicted to them. For many good reasons: long commute drives, need to relax while doing other chores, less strain on eyes that have spent all day on the computer, etc. That screen time is an increasing drag. And the fact that the younger generation likes to travel light means they don’t want to pack up books for the next move. Audiobooks fit in perfectly with that ‘don’t want to own a lot of stuff’ ethos.

EB: This is the second EAP book you’ve released as an audiobook. Are you planning to do the whole History of Arcadia series? How about the Jam Today books?

TD: To have the entire The History of Arcadia series as a Last Word Audio production is an author’s dream come true. I think Colby Elliott is a dream narrator (and these books should be read, or heard, as a long dream). But the next two in the series are narrated by women, and I’m not sure Colby wants to take that on. It would be great if Last Word found a great woman narrator for those two.

EB: What makes a good audiobook in your opinion?

TD: A really engaging narrator is the main thing. One of my dearest friends is an avid audiobookphile, and she says she’ll listen to content she wouldn’t usually go for if the narrator is one she loves. She likens it to restaurants: “If the food is great but the service is terrible, you won’t go back. But if the food is only good and the service is wonderful, you WILL go back.” Of course you need good content, since if the food is great and the service is wonderful, it’s a perfect score. I do think you need content that lends itself to person-to-ear narration. Incidentally, I love that we’re coming full circle, and returning to bard recitation of story!

EB: Snotty Save the Day and The Supergirls were read by Colby Elliott of Last Work Audio. How did you discover him?

TD: Actually, he discovered me, or at least, EAP books. He got in touch after reading Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, and said he wanted to do it as an audiobook. I even think it was one of the first that Last Word Audio did, though of course now they have a huge list. Anyway, we arranged a phone call, and I could tell right away that Colby was my perfect kind of partner. Usually I can tell pretty quickly, which saves a lot of time and angst. And Colby was obviously multi-talented, no-nonsense, and very human, which last is probably the most important. This was particularly lucky, since I’d been dreaming about doing audiobooks, though at the time I had my hands completely full with publishing our list. That’s slowed down now, fourteen books later, and I’m looking to expand our publishing horizons in a different direction. Audiobooks are a big part of that vision.

EB: Have you ever thought of narrating your own books?

TD: I think The History of Arcadia series needs another set of voices than just mine. The more the merrier, as long as they are, literally, on the same page. And you know, I never could have figured out how to handle the footnotes in Snotty Saves the Day, and you’ll hear that Colby did an enchanting job with them. I was thrilled.

I’d love to see Arcadia as a streaming series, and I can tell you, I would not want to be the showrunner on that! It would need another perspective. Other perspectives are always a great thing.

That said, I think I may be the best person to narrate the Jam Today cookbook/memoir series, since in great part it’s about my wistful desire to actually be in the reader’s kitchen, holding my glass of wine, and chatting about what they’re doing for dinner. So an audio narration would get me that much closer. It wouldn’t be tough for the recipes, since all of them in the Jam Today series are so flexible. I could adlib. I’d like that. That’s why you embrace as many platforms as possible—every one is a different way of looking at the material.

EB: Any Exterminating Angel news you can share?

TD: I’m focusing more on writing these days. I do find that all those years of endless multitasking have left me with my multitasking capability worn plumb out. So writing is more than enough for me right now. I’m working on the fifth The History of Arcadia book, narrated by a member of the next generation of Arcadians. She cannot understand why the older generation is so obsessed with defeating Megalopolis when there is so much to enjoy about life. Kali, my heroine, just wants to get on with having fun, and to be left alone to enjoy her hybrid monster companion and friends from over the forbidden border to imperial Pavopolis. She learns what she needs to do in her generation to evolve to something completely new, a solution never thought of before.

I’m also writing My Life with Dogs, which is kind of a memoir about dogs in the same way that the Jam Today books are about food—really it’s just a way to get into talking about my own experience of life in this time and place. It does feature some wonderful dogs, though, I will say that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TD: My dear Literary Ashland, always a pleasure. Looking forward already to our next chat.

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An Interview with Stephanie Raffelock

Stephanie Raffelock is the author of Creatrix Rising, Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women, (She Writes Press – August, 2021). She also penned the award winning book, A Delightful Little Book on Aging.

A graduate of Naropa University’s program in Writing and Poetics, Stephanie was a contributor to The Rogue Valley Messenger in Oregon. She has blogged for Nexus Magazine, Omaha Lifestyles,, as well as

A former i-Heart Radio host, she is now a popular guest on podcasts, where she inspires women to embrace the strength and passion of their personal story. Her commitment to uplift women extends to teaching personal development classes for incarcerated women and non-profits, including Dress for Success, Austin.

A recent transplant to Austin, Texas Stephanie enjoys an active life with her husband, Dean and their Labrador retriever, Mickey Mantel Raffelock.

On May 20, 2021, she will host a panel feminist titled The Creative Surge of Midlife Women: Women’s History is a Her Story, sponsored by the Friends of Hannon Library

Ed Battistella: Tell us a bit about your forthcoming book Creatrix Rising.

Stephanie Raffelock: I was inspired by the women around me who were running for political office, starting businesses, creating art and living life vitally, all of them over the age of fifty. The culture’s perception of the midlife woman is a worn-out and sometimes toxic stereotype. So the book postulates a new and emerging archetype, the Creatrix.

The name Creatrix comes from the three Greek fates, the spinner, the weaver and the cutter. The weaver was called Creatrix. The name literally means: A woman who makes things. The older archetypes, especially that of the Crone, don’t fit. Nobody wants that title. Crone means disagreeable old woman. So Creatrix Rising, Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women, is about the shift that’s happening in midlife women that puts them in touch with their inner strength, power and wisdom.

EB: You tell your own story of growth in the book. What motivated you to write it at this point?

SR: Self-knowledge reveals all things. Somewhere along the way, I committed to living the examined life. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to appreciate the psychological and spiritual insights not only within my self, but within others as they walk the path of what we call the human experience.

Telling my own story is my credential. I’m not a theologian, a psychologist of a sociologist, so my credibility comes from sharing my most authentic experience of life’s unfoldment. The motivation for writing the book is inspired by the observation of women around me. Women are more willing than ever before to stand in the light of their truth and speak it. And, has there ever been a time when we needed a woman’s voice in leadership more?

EB: How have you evolved as a writer over the years?

SR: Slowly. Oregon was a writer’s incubator for me. I retired from fulltime work when I moved to Ashland, and for the first time in my life, I had the hours to dedicate myself to my love for writing. I became active in Willamette Writers. I was part of a writing circle. I went to classes and workshops. I wrote articles for The Rogue Valley Messenger as well a column for a large blog called Sixty and Me. I wrote seven full manuscripts. I wish I could tell you that they were all good. But the truth is, they were mostly rambling narrative. But that is the process. Study and practice – there’s really no way to replace that. My years in Oregon formed my discipline and respect for the craft of writing. Over a period of several years, I started to find my voice and more confidence in my ability to hammer out work that communicates and articulates the heart of the story I’m writing.

EB: The Dalai Lama has predicted that women will save the world. What’s the role of creatrixes?

SR: I have long believed that women hold the emotion of the world; that the gift that we bring to the table is a counter balance to the old, paradigm of bottom line profit. The Creatrix recognizes the power of her creativity and feeling tone. She leads with that. The Women’s March of 2017 was filled with Creatrixes. The 2018 midterms, where more women over the age of 50 ran for local, state and national office is an example of the Creatrix, rising. I believe that the greatest role of the Creatrix archetype is to give a positive title to the creative surge that women over the age of fifty are experiencing and demonstrating in our society.

EB: Tell us about your earlier book on aging, A Delightful Little Book on Aging.

SR: A Delightful Little Book on Aging, was just that – a delightful book. It’s a series of essays and personal stories about embracing the years, rather than fearing or disdaining them. One summer, I’d had the experience of a manuscript being turned down by thirty-five publishers and then losing my literary agent. I felt that if I didn’t pull together something and keep going, I’d give up. So, I put together a compilation of essays and stories that were about my experience of loving my age, and loving life. It’s a small hard back, gift type of book.

EB: What sort of feedback have you gotten about A Delightful Little Book on Aging, which I noticed received several awards.

SR: I was amazed at the positive feedback that I got, and yes, a number of awards. That little book, gave me a big boost of confidence and I’ve enjoyed sharing the message, which seems to be much needed – that of life doesn’t stop at fifty. Life gets better, more creative and presents to all of us a question worthy of contemplation: “Why does nature keep us alive after midlife?” It’s such a great question. And the answer to that bring me full circle to the beginning of this discussion – Self-knowledge reveals all things.

EB: You published with the wonderful folks at She Writes Press? What was that experience like?

SR: She Writes Press is dynamic sisterhood of women authors. Brook Warner who co-founded the company has created an environment of support and encouragement. She teaches all of her writers about the publishing experience. She offers continuing education classes with some of the finest writers in the country teaching them. She Writes Press provides a much needed platform for women to tell their stories.

EB: Can you tell us about some future creative plans or ongoing projects?

SR: I’ve recently started a new manuscript about secular spirituality, questioning how we come to believe what we do, and what informs those beliefs. I’ve been building a speaker’s resume and look forward to adding the Hannon Library event to that endeavor. I’m preparing to teach a class at the non-profit, Dress for Success, Austin, an organization that uplifts women, helping them with everything from business attire, to resume writing, to personal development. I’ll be teaching a class called Rewriting the Ending to Your Story.

And on a final note, I have a new puppy named Mickey Mantel Raffelock who keeps me out on the trails, daily. I’d forgotten how much energy a puppy has. My joyful experience is tinged with humor, because I have a dog who manages to sneak into the bathroom and grab the end of the toilet paper and run through the house, leaving a long trail of toilet paper behind him. He’s a pretty funny guy.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

SR: Thanks, Ed. It’s a very special experience to be giving a presentation in Ashland, Oregon. I love the town and the university. Both will always have a special place in my heart. I only wish I was going to be there live and in person. . . one day soon, I hope. Thanks for the interview.

You can find Stephanie at:





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An Interview with Scott Kaiser, author of Albert’s Adventures in Willy World

C:\Users\battiste\Downloads\Scott Kaiser Headshot.jpg Scott Kaiser is a director, playwright, master teacher of acting, and author who spent 28 seasons as a member of the artistic staff at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where he directed, adapted, coached, or performed in all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Kaiser is the author of more than a dozen books on Shakespeare, including Have Shakespeare, Will Travel; The Tao of Shakespeare; Shakespeare’s Wordcraft; and Mastering Shakespeare. He has also penned several original plays, including Falstaff in Love, Love’s Labor’s Won, Now This, Splittin’ the Raft, and Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues.

He has degrees from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

His latest book is Albert’s Adventures in Willy World, a fantastical satire of the commodification of William Shakespeare—which Kaiser refers to as “The Shakespeare Industry.”

You can visit Scott’s personal website here.

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed Albert’s Adventures in Willy World, which is a murder mystery but much, much more. I saw it as a good-natured ribbing of the Shakespeare industry, with a twist of acid. Is that what you had in mind?

Scott Kaiser: Sure, that sounds about right. Or perhaps, as Alice in Wonderland inspired the book, you might think of it a journey down the rabbit hole of the Shakespeare Industry.

EB: The setting is a fictional Shakespeare theme park, which casts Ashland in a whole new light. Do you see Ashland as a fantasy world?

SK: In my imagination, Willy World is actually closer to Walt Disney World, a place where every square inch of real estate is carefully curated to serve a purpose—that is, to make money for the Disney Corporation.

That fact is, if William Shakespeare were a corporation traded on the New York Stock Exchange, it would be just like Disney—a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, operating in every country on the planet, worth untold billions.

Luckily, Shakespeare is in the public domain, so he belongs to everyone. Which means that everyone can make a buck off of him. And they do!

Having said that, Ashland, where I’ve lived for 30 years, was certainly on my mind when I created Willy World. You can see the Bard’s influence everywhere in our town, in faux Tudor facades, and cutesy Shakespearean names like As-U-Stor-It, Oberon’s Restaurant, The Windsor Inn, and streets like Birnam Wood Road, Romeo Drive, and Elizabeth Avenue. And why not? Shakespeare is the life-blood of this community, bringing in waves of tourists, who see plays, book rooms, eat meals, drink wine, buy trinkets, fill their tanks with gas, and eventually return to buy a second home.

EB: If it were up to you, how would Shakespeare be treated differently, not just here but globally?

SK: Like most satires, the aim of the book is not necessarily to advocate for particular changes, but to hold a mirror up to all the absurdity that Shakespeare inspires in our modern culture. Such as endless movie adaptations, “translations” of his work into plain English, people who want to ban him from the curriculum, Anti-Stratfordians who believe in a centuries-old conspiracy, First Folio freaks, original pronunciation geeks, thousands upon thousands of books and dissertations about the Bard’s life and work, bottomless merchandising of every conceivable Shakespeare-related product, and so on, ad nauseam.

EB: The characters you introduced along the way seemed to have hints here and there of real people: Barry Heckler, Louise Quibbler, Elsie Phoneme, and so on. How closely were you channeling folks?

SK: My lawyer is grateful to you for asking this question! Please note: the characters portrayed in this book are fictitious. No identification with actual persons living or deceased is intended or should be inferred.

Seriously though, the characters in the book aren’t based on anyone in particular—they’re composites of people that I’ve gotten to know during my decades of working in the professional theatre, people with quirks and eccentricities and highly specialized talents. So I’d like to think that I’ve created my characters with affection, not disdain. If the characters remind my readers of someone they know, well, that’s not something I have control over, is it?

EB: What’s been the reaction from your former colleagues at OSF?

SK: My former festival colleagues easily recognize, of course, the inspiration for certain passages in the book, and tell me they’ve gotten a good laugh out of them. But they said this during the pandemic, wearing masks, so, who knows if they really meant it!

Anyway, it’s important to note that the book isn’t really about OSF, or any institution in particular—it’s about people all over the country, all over the world really, who make their living from the corpus of Shakespeare. Which includes most of my dearest friends and colleagues. As well as me, myself, and I.

EB: Where can readers get your book?

SK: Funny you should ask! Believe it or not, the book can be found on a remarkable website called by using this link. And here’s my author page if you want to peruse the other 16 books I’ve written. And here’s a link if you’d rather look at a cute puppy.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Don’t let the Oxfordians get you!

SK: Zounds! You’re not one of them, are you?

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An Interview with Amber Reed, author of Nostalgia After Apartheid

Amber R. Reed is the author of Nostalgia after Apartheid: Disillusionment, Youth, and Democracy in South Africa, (Notre Dame Press, 2020), part of the Kellogg Institute Series on Democracy and Development.

She earned a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and MA and PhD University of California, Los Angeles and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Among her specializations are the areas of South Africa, youth, democracy, race, nostalgia, apartheid, and visual media.

Dr. Reed is an associate professor of anthropology at Southern Oregon University.

Ed Battistella: In your book, you talk about the anthropology of nostalgia. What is the anthropology of nostalgia?

Amber Reed: The idea here is to apply the perspective of cultural anthropology to the understanding of nostalgia – something that I think most people instead think of as an internal, psychological experience. How can we understand nostalgia as a cultural and social practice? I write about nostalgia as a phenomenon different from other forms of remembering; it is about looking at the past with a desire or longing to return to it. But more than that, nostalgia recasts the past in ways that might not be truthful. In other words, we desire a return to something that may never have actually existed. This is a new but expanding area of anthropology; a few other people have written about this in the past few years as well.

EB: How did you get interested in South Africa and in Xhosa culture?

AR: When I started graduate school at UCLA in 2008, I knew I wanted to study the role of non-governmental organizations in promoting youth activism in South Africa. I had been to the country once before in 2005 as a volunteer doing wildlife rehabilitation, and was excited to return in a research capacity. I connected with a public health researcher at UCLA working on HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and she connected me with the Sonke Gender Justice Network. Sonke had been doing a bunch of programs in the rural Eastern Cape, and needed someone to do an assessment of one of them. I wanted to learn more about what they had done, so I traded my ethnographic skills for access and wrote a report on their Digital Stories project. That was my first introduction to the Kamva community, and they placed me with a family to live for a few weeks in 2009. That family became my second family, and when I returned to do doctoral research in 2012 I lived with them for the year.

EB: You talk about the way that nostalgia can be a form of resistance and how local cultural forms act as a prism for Western-based notions of democracy. Could you give an example?

AR: A clear example from my research is the nostalgia rural Xhosa teachers have for students during the apartheid era. They wax nostalgic for how the apartheid government was strict in schools and helped them manage their classrooms – students were well-behaved, the curricula allowed them to teach in ways they felt aligned with their cultural emphasis on rigid age hierarchies, corporal punishment was legal, etc. By comparison, democracy today in South Africa feels like an imposition; national human rights legislation has made corporal punishment illegal, the curricula demand active learning and student participation, lessons are supposed to include teaching about LGBTQ rights. These are all things many Xhosa people consider foreign and even immoral, and nostalgia becomes a way to recapture a sense of security from the past.

EB: You note that nostalgia tells us about the present. What are the implications to what seems to be a backlash among youth for the future?

AR: Yes, I see nostalgia as more about the present than the past: usually, it is a commentary on people’s dissatisfaction with now. In South Africa, this is largely about a sense of disappointment and hopelessness with how the state has enacted its democracy after the anti-apartheid movement and everything it promised. I think this has huge implications for youth and the future: for one thing, a lot of South African youth are parroting their elders’ nostalgia and talking about how life was better during apartheid – and they weren’t even alive then! Another implication might be political alignment: if people are waxing nostalgic for an authoritarian regime, is this going to change youths’ voting behavior in the future?

EB: I understand that the book came out of your 2014 doctoral dissertation. What are some of the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book like Nostalgia After Apartheid?

AR: The biggest difference is that by the time the book comes out, you are usually really far removed from when you actually did the research! I did the bulk of this research in 2012, so it has been a long road and I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over the data again and again to get here. The dissertation is really about meeting the objectives of your doctoral committee; demonstrating your ability to synthesize ideas from your discipline, to discuss major schools of thought, to show that you did the fieldwork necessary for the degree. The book is really different – it is about introducing your readers to a new topic and drawing them into a world they might not have any familiarity with. For the book, I added a lot of stories and personal anecdotes that weren’t in the dissertation. I hadn’t thought of them as “data,” but in retrospect they were some of the more informative parts of my research experience.

EB: Are there lessons to be drawn about the US political scene from the anthropology of nostalgia?

Absolutely! Nostalgia is a political tool wielded in campaigns and by politicians constantly. “Make America Great Again” is all about nostalgia – a fantasy of a better past that relies on specific ideas of what America was and should be. It isn’t about facts, it is about painting a particular vision. I think the more we can recognize the role of nostalgia in politics, the more we can break down problematic assumptions and portraits of what America is or is not that might be harmful to particular communities or individuals.

EB: What other research projects are you working on?

AR: I have two major projects at the moment: one that is longer term and started pre-COVID, and the other that arose during the pandemic. The first is examining the movement of rural, Black families in the Eastern Cape to suburban areas that were white-only spaces under apartheid. I’m focusing on the port city of East London on the Indian Ocean coast to do this work, which is a really interesting smaller South African city that I think doesn’t get enough scholarly attention but sort of encapsulates a lot of the South African story in its history. This project is going to look at why people move to these spaces, and what they experience when they get there. I’m also looking at the role of visual media – television, Internet shows – in projecting a fantasy of multiracial suburban life that doesn’t necessarily match the reality of what people experience when they get there.

The COVID project is one I’m doing with a South African colleague who is a trained ethnographer and Xhosa person. She has conducted interviews and administered surveys with people in East London who were active in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and are today dealing with the lockdown orders from the South African government (they had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic). We’re asking about how the lockdown laws – keeping people in their houses, forcing them to show ID to move around, police enforcement – might trigger their memories of state violence and surveillance during apartheid.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AR: Anytime!

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Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Edwin Battistella, Kristin Denham, Anne Lobeck

Progress report [12/2020]


1. Introduction 2

1.1 Challenges 2

1.2. Goals 3

1.3. Oregon and Washington 3

2. Pronunciation 5

2.1 The cot-caught Merger 5

2.2 Front vowels 7

2.3 Aaron and Erin, and Mary, merry and marry 8

2.4 Horrible 9

2.5 The pin/pen merger 10

3. Once-stigmatized forms: coupon and often 11

4. Two other problematic words: syrup and route 17

5. Lexical changes in progress 18

5.1 on accident and by accident 18

5.2 dude 20

5.3 legit(ly) 21

5.4 Hella 22

5.5 Your guyses 23

5.6 Jojos 24

6. Comparison with the Harvard Dialect Survey 26

7. A Reading Passage 30

8. What we learned and what’s next 32

8.1 Struggles 32

8.2 Learning opportunities 32

8.3 Next steps 34

References 35

Key words: Oregon, Washington, Low vowel merger, California vowel shift, Pacific Northwest speech, slang and language change.

1. Introduction

1.1 Challenges

One of the challenges of teaching linguistics, and especially of teaching linguistics to non-majors is to heighten students’ awareness of dialect diversity, dialect research, and dialect stereotypes. As professors, we discuss language variation in classes and elicit pronunciations, vocabulary and usage from students, but we often find students to be uncomfortable with the complexity of usage and sometimes nervous that they are not speaking properly. Students in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to learn that they have dialects and that the speech of the Pacific Northwest might vary widely according to features of region, age, gender, ethnicity, education and social class.

And it’s not just students. When we talk dialect diversity with members of the general public, they are sometimes skeptical that the region would have a discernable accent or dialect. A historian colleague who read an essay on Pacific Northwest dialect perceptions questioned whether bag-raising was a real phenomenon and asked how dialects compared to other regional styles, like clothing and architecture. An administrator from Texas, reviewing a grant proposal, opined that Oregonians didn’t have an accent, “not like Texas.”

Here we report on some survey and classroom techniques to bring linguistic research into the classroom and engage students in exploring their own speech variation. Taking Ashland, Oregon, and Bellingham, Washington, as end points along the I-5 corridor of the Pacific Northwest, we piloted a survey of about 887 (mostly) students during the academic years 2014-2019 (continuing into the 2019-2020 academic year), asking about perceptions of pronunciation with a long-term goal of collecting demographic information. After obtaining IRB approval, we used the Qualtrics survey software to develop an online survey asking students 35 questions, 22 of which had to do with language and 12 of which were demographic, and a final question about using their survey results.[1]

1.2. Goals

Initially, we had four goals. First, we wanted to give students an appreciation for the complexity of dialect data and the way in which representations of dialect (and data) are often abstractions. Thus, in class discussions, students often note that their own speech differs from textbook descriptions, and they cite various anecdotal examples and counterexamples from friends and relatives (“My boyfriend says EYE-ron and it drives me crazy,” said one student). By having students analyze actual data from their speech community, they can see where patterns exist and don’t, and they may become less judgmental about variation.

Second, we wanted to explore the various vowel shifts and the extent to which they might differently be showing up in the speech of northwest Washington (Bellingham is 21 miles from the Canadian border) and southwest Oregon (Ashland is 13 miles from the California border). We hoped that we might spark students’ interest in the topic of vowel shifts and phonetic variation more generally.

A third goal was to collect data on some potentially age- and social class-related items, such as the use of gender neutral dude, the double possessive your guys’s, hella, and legit, as well as the pronunciations of items like often and coupon.

Our fourth goal was to develop some questions, activities and exercises surrounding local dialects that would allow us to reinforce learning goals in linguistics as we discuss the survey results in classes.

Finally, in this initial phase of our work, we cast a wide net to experiment with the survey software and to determine both what was doable as researchers and what was important to teach in class. In the conclusion, we offer some suggestions for the future.

1.3. Oregon and Washington

The earliest languages spoken in the Northwest were those of immigrants from northeast Asia, traveling across the continental shelf into what is now Alaska and Canada, making their way along the Pacific coast and inland. As a result, the Northwest shows especially dense concentrations of pre-European languages. First contact by Europeans came by sea, when Spanish galleons landed along the coast of northern California in the mid-1500s. In 1778, on his third voyage to the Pacific, English Captain James Cook sailed to the central Oregon coast and in 1792, Captain Robert Gray of Rhode Island sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River, which Gray renamed after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. The famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the founding of Astoria in 1811 helped to further establish the American presence in the Pacific Northwest.

From 1818 to 1846, the Oregon Territory was jointly occupied by British and Americans. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 fixed the boundary between Great Britain and America at 49 degrees. Once the border was established, American settlement in the Oregon Territory took off. In The Willamette Valley: Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier, William Bowen writes that those settling in that area tended to be “disproportionately from the ranks of unmarried men from the Northeast or abroad.” The census of 1850 recorded 11,873 Oregonians, 60% of whom were males and most of whom hailed from the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio (Loy, et. al. 2001, 15).

According to Randall V. Mills, most settlers funneled through the Missouri and Iowa area while preparing to travel west on the Oregon Trail. The migration brought language to the new territory that incorporated the speech of many emigrants from New England or New York (Mills, 1950: 83). In Oregon, Mills proposed three broad founding dialect areas, a narrow strip along the Willamette River from Portland to Eugene, a more rural area extending from the Willamette River Valley to the Pacific Coast Range, and an area to the east of the Cascade Mountains and to the south of the Calapooya Mountains. As for Washington, Carroll Reed (1952) noted that while the Missouri element predominated in the areas of Washington adjacent to Oregon, spreading “all along the Columbia River, particularly in the areas east of Walla Walla,” other waves of settlers from Iowa, southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio predominated in the Pacific counties. According the Reed, “the speech of southern Illinois and Iowa may be considered typical for most of the state of Washington,” at least as far as the founder effect is considered.

Today both states are increasingly multilingual, though less so than much of the rest of the country. According to the data from the Language Map Data Center of the Modern Language Association, about 83 percent of the Oregon and Washington population speak English at home and about 17 percent speak a language other than English, with Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, and Tagalog among the most robust.[2] Apart from the founder effects and linguistic diversity, both Oregon and Washington have significant urban-rural divides and show the influence of emerging industries and of emigrants from other states.

Our subjects were 887 (mostly) students at Southern Oregon University and Western Washington University.[3] Demographic data collected included age, gender, ethnicity, hometown, perceived social class, college major, and family household income. We also asked students’ self-perception of whether they were urban, rural or suburban and to rate themselves as speakers and writers of English.[4]

2. Pronunciation

2.1 The cot-caught Merger

The Pacific Northwest is geographically situated between two current linguistic shifts in vowel production: the so-called California Vowel Shift and the Canadian Vowel Shift. The California Vowel Shift, shown below with the shifts represented by arrows, involves a fronting of the vowels produced in the back of the mouth—the long vowels boot and coat and the shorter vowels in could and cut being pronounced more toward the front of the mouth (approaching butte, key-oat, cud and ket), with the short front vowels being lowered and backed (kid toward ked, get toward gat and cat toward cot). At the same time, the earlier distinct vowels in cot and caught are merging. Linguistic shifts happen slowly over long periods of time, and are sensitive to style shifts and the performance of identity, but overall what had been a vowel trapezoid historically is becoming more of the vowel triangle.[5]

C:\Users\Brandon Aleshire\Desktop\CALshiftWARD41.png

(diagram from Ward, 41, from Hinton, et al.)

Not shown in the diagram is a counter-raising among the front vowels in syllables ending in velar consonants (g, k, ng). There, the lower vowels in the front of the mouth shift upward, yielding beg for bag, laig for leg, thenk (or even think) for thank, and so on. See Freeman (2013, 2014).

The elements of the California vowel shift are proceeding at different rates and are more prominent in different speech styles and some (such as the lowering and backing of /æ/ and the fronting of /uw/ have made their way into media stereotypes of the Valley Girl/Surfer Dude speech. Students are often aware of the fronting of /uw/ in their own speech as an aspect of speech style but seem to be less attuned to their backing of /æ/.

The Canadian Vowel Shift is similar to the California Shift in several respects. First described in 1995 by Clarke, Elms and Youssef, the shift also involves the lowering of the front lax vowels /æ/ (the short-a of trap and cat), /ɛ/ (the short-e of dress), and /ɪ/ (the short-i of kit). It also involves the merger of the cot and caught vowels, though the merged Canadian vowel is more rounded, slightly lower and slightly further back than the merged cot/caught vowel among many speakers in the U.S.

According to Charles Boberg, the retraction of /æ/ is being led by speakers from Ontario, in in east-central, and by women. The shift is somewhat less advanced among speakers from the other regions of Canada and among men (Boberg, 2005). In the Atlas of North American English, (Labov et al., 2006), it is suggested that about a quarter of speakers in the Western U.S., exhibit the Canadian Shift. [6]

C:\Users\Brandon Aleshire\Desktop\CANshiftWARD42.png

(diagram from Ward, 42 from Clarke)

When we discuss the vowel shifts in introductory classes, students are fascinated but also sometimes unsure of their own pronunciation. Thus we begin by collecting data on some of the more easily identifiable of the vowels involved in the shift, the vowel sounds in the names Don and Dawn. The don/dawn pair is salient for students because the orthography indicates the word difference and thus highlights the phonological merger. And often, someone knows in a class knows both a Don and a Dawn and can attest to the possibility of confusion arising from the merger. Two of our survey questions looked at this pair and at hock and hawk:

Q2 – How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words DON and DAWN? The same or differently.

Q19 – Do you pronounce the words HOCK and HAWK the same or differently?

81% said they pronounce don/dawn the same and differently and 83% pronounce hock/hawk the same.

It is worth asking at this point whether students are accurately able to self-identify their pronunciations in response to prompts. More research is doubtless needed on this topic, but in section 8 we report on a sub-study comparing actual pronunciation to reported pronunciation for 23 speakers. Here we found an 89% accuracy in identifying their own pronunciation.

2.2 Front vowels

We also asked a set of questions about the pronunciation of the front vowels in the words Craig, leg, and egg, where the vowels may be tensed /e/ or a lax /ɛ/. The name

Craig is word of Celtic origin and related to the Scottish Gaelic creag “rock,” and thus also to the word “crag.” The pronunciation varies in the English-speaking world, and in the U.S. and Canada it is often pronounced with the lax /ɛ/. Historically the pronunciation of Craig falls outside of the California/Canadian shift and the alternate pronunciations appear to be in fairly evenly distributed among Pacific Northwest speakers.

Q5 – Do you usually pronounce the name CRAIG as crAYg or crEHg?

59% reported pronouncing the name as crAYg and 41% as crEHg.

In leg and egg we were looking for evidence of raising of the vowel lax /ɛ/, to a tensed /e/. This is part of the counter-raising aspect of the California vowel shift in particular.

Q7 Do you usually pronounce EGGS more like EHggs or AIggs?

Q20 Do you usually pronounce the word LEGS more like LEHggs or LAYggs?

The results were:

Non-raised /ɛ/ Raised /e/

64% EHggs 36% AIggs

62% lEHgs 38% lAYggs

Most speakers reported pronunciations with a lax /ɛ/ though just over a third were egg and leg raisers.

In classes (and conversations, especially those with individuals in the service professions) we also find evidence of raising of the /æ/ vowel in thank, which is in a closed syllable before velar /ŋ/ and /k/. Thank you is sometimes pronounced /thɛŋkju/ or even /thInkju/. We return to thank you in section 8.1 below.

2.3 Aaron and Erin, and Mary, merry and marry

We also examined the pronunciation of the pair of names Aaron and Erin, which makes a nice pedagogical contrast with Dawn and Don. In most of the U.S., the pronunciation of Aaron and Erin is the same, with a mid-lax /ɛ/ rather than a low /æ/. American English merged the two sounds before /r/ while they remain distinct in the U.K.[7]

Given this, we expect the American West to show the merger of these sounds quite robustly.

Q17 – Do you say the names ERIN and AARON the same or differently?

78% reported pronouncing the names the same.

The Aaron/Erin merger opens the door to classroom discussion of the three-way contrast before /r/ in the words Mary /e/, merry /ɛ/, and marry /æ/. In New England, New York City and Philadelphia and parts of the South, the three words are often distinct. In the Inland North and mid-Atlantic (excluding Philadelphia), there is often a two-way contrast of with Mary and merry pronounced as /mɛri/ and marry retaining the /æ/ (/mæri/). See Labov, et al. (2006), Dinkin (2005) and Gordon (2008), and Kretzschmar (2008) for more background and discussion. In much of the rest of the country, the three are merged as /mɛri/. For simplicity’s sake in the survey, we took for granted that Mary and merry would be homophones (pronounced as /ɛ /) for many speakers and focused on marry and merry.

Q 9 How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words MARRY and MERRY? The same or differently.

83% reported pronouncing them the same. 82 respondents reported pronouncing both marry/merry and Erin/Aaron differently, but 110 of those who pronounced marry/merry the same pronounced Erin/Aaron differently and 70 of those who pronounced marry/merry differently pronounced Erin/Aaron the same.

2.4 Horrible

The pronunciation of the word horrible (and similar words (such as orange, florist, and Florida) with /ɑr/ is common in the area including New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Carolinas. Elsewhere the pronunciation tends to be the /ɔr/, with the exception that Oregonians typical have an /ar/ in the state’s name. We expected the pronunciation of horrible to have the pervasive /ɔr/ we represented as HOAR-ible.

Q6 – Do you usually pronounce HORRIBLE as HAR-ible or HOAR-ible.

97% reported HOAR-ible.

2.5 The pin/pen merger

The pin-pen merger is a merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ], which predominates in the South, resulting in a near homophony in words like pen and pin, gem and gym, him and hem, kin and Ken, bin and Ben, and so on. Bailey and Maynor (1989, 13) report that the merger began “in the last part of the nineteenth century and worked its way to completion during the last half century.” The pin/pen merger is found in the Midland Regions (Labov, et al. 2006), has expanded west, and is widespread through Kansas City, Houston, Seattle, and Bakersfield, California (Strelluf 2014 and Koops 2008). Since parts of Oregon and Washington were settled by emigrants from the South, we were interested in testing the robustness of this merger in the Pacific Northwest. Impressionistically, it appears to be most prominent with speakers who have Southern roots or close relatives. [8]

Image result for pin pen merger

pin/pen merger areas in purple

We approached this obliquely by asking about the pronunciation of center, rather than pin/pen directly.

Q18 – Do you usually pronounce the first vowel of CENTER as sen or sin?

Speakers overwhelmingly selected the non-raised vowel. 96% reported the pronunciation SEN-ter. Of the 4% of respondents whose responses suggest that they have the merger (34 individuals) 8 were from the South or had lived in the South several of the Oregon, Washington, and California speakers reported rural identification.

3. Once-stigmatized forms: coupon and often

There is of course more to speech variation than pronunciation of vowels, so we have also been collecting data on the pronunciation and use of lexical items that seem to be social variants. One of these is the pronunciation of coupon, which in American usage is pronounced with or without a glide following the initial /k/. The glide is a twentieth century development and was for a time stigmatized (and it remains a shibboleth for some speakers and in some pronunciation guides), though current dictionaries give it as standard. But while, dictionaries of American English give both pronunciations, older dictionaries and more prescriptive guides still treat the glide pronunciation as substandard (the Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, for example, calls it “Spurious” and Bryan Garner says that it “betrays an ignorance of French and of the finer points of English”). Nevertheless, in the U.S., pronunciations with a palatal glide (a /j/) before long /u/ are common after velar consonants (as in cute, cube, cue, Cupid, skew, factual, regulate, angular, and argue). [9]

In the case of coupon, we offered speakers the third option of reporting that they pronounced it both ways.[10] The speakers we surveyed reported a slight majority pronouncing the word as COOP-on but roughly a quarter consistently pronounce it with the glide (CYEW-pon).

Q8 Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as COOP-on CYEW-pon? Or both ways.

58% reported the pronunciation COOP-on; 21% reported pronouncing the word as CYEWpon or CUEpon; 19% reported pronouncing coupon both ways.

In classes, the coupon item can lead to a discussion of the misleading role of etymology in judging pronunciation. Coupon can be traced back to the French word coup (meaning a blow, as in coup-contrecoup or coup de grâce and later an impressive act (as in a publishing coup). Coupon entered English in the 19th century, with a first OED citation from 1822. It was initially a financial term related to certificates attached to bonds. The meaning evolved to refer to prepaid ticket for travel and in the early twentieth century to the familiar sense part of an advertisement redeemable for a discount or free offer.

We also looked at what connections there are between self-perceptions of social class and of speaking/writing ability and pronunciation of coupon? There was relatively little difference across class.

Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:
COOP-on CYEW-pon I pronounce it both ways
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 40% 42% 44%
Lower Middle Class/Working Class
Middle Class 13% 19% 19%
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 47% 38% 37%
Total 493 206 174

We also looked at the self-reports of speaking and writing, and again there is very little difference. Interestingly the CYEW-pon speakers did not consider themselves less good English speakers or writers, suggesting that it is not stigmatized for them.

Do you consider yourself _____ speaker/writer of English
a better than average an average a worse than average Total
COOP-on 292 211 9 501
CYEW-pon 117 82 6 205
both ways 102 62 1 165
Total 511 355 16 882

58% of COOP-on speakers considered themselves better than average as did 57% of CYEWpon speakers and 61% of those who pronounce coupon both ways. COOP-on is still the marginally dominant pronunciation but about 40% of respondents either pronounce the word CYEWpon or alternate. The results are consistent across social class and gender.

The situation for often, another former shibboleth, is somewhat more complex than that of coupon. The formerly stigmatized form AWFten is vastly preferred, though somewhat less so by females and urbanites. The preferences of the self-described middle class speakers are fairly close.

Historically, often comes from oft, and the /t/ was lost among educated speakers in the 17th century. But the /t/ was retained or reintroduced as a spelling pronunciation. Merriam Webster cites the pronunciation as \ˈȯ-fən, ÷ˈȯf-tən\, with the ÷ sign (the obelus mark) indicating “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” [11]

Others commentators are less diplomatic about the /t/-less pronunciation, with Elster’s Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations calling it “less common in educated speech and far more often disapproved of by cultivated speakers—particularly teachers of English, drama, and speech.” Elster cites early twentieth century commentators who called it “vulgar” and “sham-refined,” or in Henry Fowler’s terms, practiced by “the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours … & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Garner refers to it as non-U usage (following the terminology of Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford for upper-class and non-upper-class usage and social practices in England).

Nevertheless, the speakers we surveyed pronounced the word without a /t/ by about three to one, though some noted in class discussion that they sometimes pronounce it either way.

25% reported pronouncing the word with a t (AWFTen)

75% reported pronouncing it without a t (AWFen)

When we cross-tabulated this split for social class we found little difference in the percentages according to class self-perception.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 14 26 40
Lower Middle Class/Working Class 79 236 315
Middle Class 39 121 160
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 96 270 366
Total 228 657 887
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 35% 65%
Lower Middle Class/Working Class 25% 75%
Middle Class 24% 66%
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 26% 64%
26% 74%

Gender did not appear to be a factor either: the percentage of females with the AWFEN pronunciation is about the same as the percentage of males.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
What is your gender? Male 69 178 247
Female 151 463 614
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten
What is your gender? Male 28% 72%
Female 25% 75%

However, rural speakers appear to prefer AWFten, 82%, as compared to 65% of urban speakers and 76% of suburban speakers.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your background? Urban 50 91 141
Rural 26 115 141
Suburban 80 257 337
Total 156 463
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten
How would you characterize your background? Urban 35% 65%
Rural 18% 82%
Suburban 24% 76%

Finally, we looked to see what the preferences of COOP-on and CYEW-pon speakers were with respect to often and vice versa (the preferences of AWFen and AWFten speakers for the pronunciation of coupon.)

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as: COOP-on 150 363 513
CYEW-pon 41 166 207
I pronounce it both ways 37 128 165
Total 228 657 885

About 10% more COOP-on speakers preferred AWFen than AWFten and 10% more AWFen speakers preferred COOP-on suggesting a clustering of the former prestige forms for some speakers.

Say AWFen Say AWFTen
COOP-on speakers 30% 70%
CYEW-pon speakers 20% 80%
Both 24% 76%
Say COOP-on Say CYEW-pon Say both
AWFen speakers 65% 18% 16%
AWFTen speakers 55% 25% 19%

4. Two other problematic words: syrup and route

How do you say the words syrup and route? The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) gives the pronunciation of the former as “Usu. [‘sɪrəp, sɝəp], Sth SMidl [‘sʌrəp, ‘sɝp],” noting that there is additional regional variation and evidence from spelling pronunciations. The DARE coding indicates a usual pronunciation with a high lax vowel or a mid-lax rhotic [ɝ] with somewhat different pronunciations in the South and South Midlands. Merriam-Webster offers the pronunciations [ˈsər-əp, ˈsir-əp, ˈsə-rəp] as variants and the Harvard Dialect study points to the widespread use of the variants with the [ʌ] or [ə] in the first syllable.

The various transcription systems make for a sticky situation, but the key question is whether the word is pronounced with a higher front vowel (as in SEER) or a lower more back vowel (as in SIR):

Q3 – Do you usually pronounce the word SYRUP as SIRup or SEERup?

72% reported SIRup

In American English, the word route can be pronounced as either /ru:t/ (rOOt) or /raut/ (rAWt), making the word polyphonic like economics, either, garage, and Celtic. Pronunciation may be affected by cultural influences like the iconic Route 66 and by competition from the term router for the networking device that moves data packets between computer networks. According to DARE, the usual North Eastern and Central Atlantic pronunciation is /ru:t/ with some variation in specific uses like a rural free delivery mail route or a paper route (/raut/).

DARE respondents for /ru:t/

DARE explains that the /raut/ pronunciation (they give both [raUt and [ræUt]) is “scattered but chiefly IL, OH, wPA, WV, MD.” DARE cites an Oxford English Dictionary comment that “Down to c 1800 the usual spelling was rout,” and that the pronunciation appears in 19th century still “remained in military use, and by many speakers in the U.S. and Canada.” DARE also observes that in the west, route has an additional sense in which it means the length of time working in a logging camp. Our tentative hypothesis was that westerners would prefer the /raut/ pronunciation, but also be well aware of the /rut/ pronunciation from the media. We asked

Q4 Do you usually pronounce the word ROUTE as rUWt (like boot) or rOWt (like out) or do you say both?

However, in the first two years of the survey, we forced a choice between the two pronunciations.

60% ROWT when there was a two-way choice. When there was a three-way choice, 33% reported ROWT and 42% reported pronouncing route both ways.

Add a map of route in OR & WA

5. Lexical changes in progress

We also asked about several lexical and grammatical changes in progress including the spread of gender-neutral on accident, dude, your guyses, legitly, hella and jo-jos.

5.1 on accident and by accident

If you do something accidentally, is it on accident or by accident? According to Leslie Barratt (2005), younger speakers in different parts of the country are moving toward saying on accident while older speakers tend to use by accident, a form that is still prescribed by some traditionalists. Barrett and her students studied on accident in four communities differing in size and demographics: Terre Haute, Indiana; Farmington Hills, Michigan; Irvine, California; and McRae, Georgia. Barrett’s project surveyed actual usage (with a reading passage), reported usage, and reported acceptance of the two phrases. In Indiana, for example, the use of on accident was largely nonexistent for speakers older than 30, while both by accident and on accident were used by those younger than 30. Reported use was not identical with actual use, with about 29% of those who used on accident exclusively saying that they would use by accident, a confusion which suggests that “some speakers are not aware of the form that they in fact use.” Results were similar in Michigan, California, and Georgia, though California speakers (in Irvine and Laguna Beach) showed some divergence:

While on accident occurs more frequently than by accident among the 11 and 12 year olds surveyed (22 to 13 for I did it ___ accident), it is completely absent among those surveyed over age 34. Likewise, in reported use, Californians were slightly less likely to report that they used on (21 responses) than they were to use it (26 responses). Finally, people who reported that they used by were less likely to accept on than the reverse.

Barrett concluded that on accident was found nationally among younger respondents in all four states and suggested that the use of on accident in different parts of the US dates back to at least the late 1970s. [12] Students in our classes have sometimes proposed a distinction in the use of on and by, depending on whether the speaker is responsible or someone else is. We tested this with the following two questions, one in which contrasts a third person she with first person I:

Q11 – If your roommate does something wrong unintentionally would you say:

She did it ON ACCIDENT 65%

She did it BY ACCIDENT 11%

I could say either one 24%

Q21 – If you did something wrong unintentionally would you say:

I did it ON ACCIDENT 62%

I did it BY ACCIDENT 13%

I could say either one 24%

It seems that the proposed 1st person/3rd person split distribution is mythical rather than actual, at least in this group of respondents.[13] Overall, younger speakers overwhelming prefer on accident and the few younger by accident speakers often report being explicitly scolded on the distinction when they had used the innovative form.

5.2 dude

If you have seen the 1969 film Easy Rider, you may recall the jail scene where the Harley-riding protagonists Wyatt and Billy find themselves in the lockup with boozy lawyer George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson. When George talks the guard into giving Billy a cigarette, Billy says,You must be some important dude. That treatment—”. Here George interrupts, “Dude? What does he mean, ‘dude’? Dude ranch?” and Wyatt explains “‘Dude’ means a nice guy, you know? ‘Dude’ means a regular person.”

The dialogue encapsulates the development of dude. The first DARE citation is an 1877 one from painter Frederic Remington who wrote fellow artist Scott Turner, with whom he was swapping sketches: “Don’t send me any more women or any more dudes.” He was referring to drawings of men and women in evening dress that Turner had been sending him. Remington said Turner should “Send me Indians, cowboys, villains, or toughs. These are what I want.”

Dude in Remington’s use means a man or boy pretentiously concerned with his clothes and grooming, as was the case for a city person new to the West, someone who might come to a dude ranch. The sense of being an out of place novice is also found in later uses in military, where dudes are new recruits. A 1936 DARE citation finds: “All right, you dudes. Fall out.”

Early on, dude could also just mean an ordinary male—a guy—and this usage picked up steam by the 1960s, according to both DARE and the OED. [14] And along the way, dude came to be used for either sex or even for inanimate objects. From 1968, we find “When the FAC pilot gets the green light to go in he fires one of these dudes to mark the target,” and a 1985 citation is “Mom asked me and I said ‘No way, dude’.”

There’s more to the story of dude, no doubt, including its popularization by The Big Lebowski, and its emergence as a term of address. But stripped to its essentials, dude seems to have evolved from a mildly pejorative term to an neutral one and from being semantically male to increasingly generic. Our survey asked

Q12 If you use the word dude, can it refer to males or females?

Yes, it can refer to both sexes.

No, it refers only to males.

88% reported that dude can refer to both sexes. Of the 103 speakers who reported that they would not use dude generically, 76 were in the 18-29 age range. One student suggested that guys would be his preferred usage for mixed-gender groups.

We will return to the question of guys as mixed gender in section 8, along with the competing form y’all.

5.3 legit(ly)

The word legit represents a change in the part of speech as well as a clipping of legitimate. In its use as an adjective short form, Merriam Webster dates its origin to 1907 and labels it “informal.” MW also includes the adverb form, labelled as “slang,” with a first citation from 1998.

Merriam Webster doesn’t, however, include legitly, the –ly adverb. Anne Curzan, writing in her Lingua Franca column in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, reports being contacted by an Michigan teacher who noted students saying things like:

“I legitly left my homework at home!”

“I legitly bombed that quiz.”

At the time, Curzan found disdain for the –ly form in both the Urban Dictionary and the popular press but concluded that “adding an –ly to legit to make a new adverb is, from a linguistic perspective, far from morphologically rebellious.”[15]

Legit, it is worth noting, was first recorded–as a noun–in an 1897 issue of the National Police Gazette: “Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit.’ It pained him to see Jim strutting through four acts of a real play.” The reference is to boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett, who became an actor after his boxing career ended. The clipping legit seems to have originated in the theatre, where it meant regular, normal or standard. The OED gives a 1908 citation to “Scene shifters, stage carpenters, actors, everything and everybody strictly ‘legit’. In the early citations, the quotes indicate the novelty of the form.

We noticed the adverb uses of legit and legitly around 2013 and were curious. At first we asked about legitly, but based on feedback from students and respondents, who indicated that they used the flat adverb legit rather than the –ly form, we revised our question in year 2 of the survey.

Q16 If you are trying to explain to your friend that you really like something, would you ever say “I legit love that book.”

Yes, I can use LEGIT that way: 27%

I’ve heard this but do not use it myself: 44%

No, I do not use LEGIT this way and haven’t heard it: 28%

Based on the low numbers, it seems, however, that legit is still not quite legit.

5.4 Hella

Hella, along with its middle-school counterpart hecka, is an adverbial intensifier that apparently emerged in the 1970s Bay Area. Linguist Ben Zimmer (1986) gives an early citation from an August 1986 interview in the magazine Thrasher in which Metallica band member James Hetfield used hella twice.[16] As youth slang, it is an index of coolness, and according to Bucholtz (2006) was “used among Bay Area youth of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and both genders, much as teenagers in other parts of the United States use the intensifiers wicked and mad.” Bucholtz cited examples from a 1995-96 Bay City High School yearbook, suggesting widespread use from across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and gender. [17] Among them:

I love ya’ll hella tite. (African American girl)

I wont to say I had a hella fun time Playing with every one from the football team. (African American boy)

this year was hella fun! (Latina girl)

my big sista, known you for hella years, you were alwaysthere for me. (European American girl)

haven’t seen ya for hella long (European American boy)

Bucholtz saw hella as “a very stable regional marker” in the Bay area and northern California at that time with “only isolated use outside of this region.” Writing in 2006, she noted that hella “currently enjoys a much wider circulation, thanks to its occasional use in popular music, television shows, and films aimed at a youth audience … but outside California it appears to be a marked, trendy term, in contrast to its enduring use as an unmarked feature of Northern California youth speech.”

We asked our subjects:

Q15 If you are trying to explain to your friend that something is very, very good, would you ever say “That’s hella good.”

Yes, I can use HELLA that way: 57%

I’ve heard this but do not use it myself: 40%

No, I’ve never heard HELLA used this way: 3%.

From these results it is clear that hella is pervasively known (by 97% of respondents) and has clearly gained traction in the Pacific Northwest youth culture, being used by more than half.

5.5 Your guyses

Since the loss of the second person singular thee, thou, and thy/thine, the standard Written English forms have been the formerly plural forms you and your. A similar process of plural- to-singular is underway with the third person they/them/their, which is widely used as an indefinite and today is increasingly used as a singular personal pronoun as well (see Baron 2020). To attenuate the ambiguity of you in the second person, various forms have emerged that distinguish singular you from plural, such as you/y’all, you/yinz, and you/you guys. [18] Yinz (from you ones and sometimes spelled yuns) is a regional form (DARE) while y’all has seemingly spread to a general friendly second person form. These plurals can be used in the possessive as well, giving yall’s, yinz’s, and you guys’s, and for many speakers your guys’s, with the possessive marking on both parts of the compound. Prescriptivists sometimes object to your guys. Here is Paul Brian’s view, from his Common Errors in English.

your guys’s: Many languages have separate singular and plural forms for the second person (ways of saying “you”), but standard English does not. “You” can be addressed to an individual or a whole room full of people.

In casual speech, Americans have evolved the slangy expression “you guys” to function as a second-person plural, formerly used of males only but now extended to both sexes, but this is not appropriate in formal contexts. Diners in fine restaurants are often irritated by clueless waiters who ask “Can I get you guys anything?”

The problem is much more serious when extended to the possessive: “You guys’s dessert will be ready in a minute.” Some people even create a double possessive by saying “your guys’s dessert. . . .” This is extremely clumsy. When dealing with people you don’t know intimately, it’s best to stick with “you” and “your” no matter how many people you’re addressing.

We approached your guys’s obliquely, by asking about the double possessive and giving speakers the opportunity to say that they don’t use you guys.

Q13 – If you do say “your guys’ party?” or “you guys’ party” do you pronounce it with one s or two?

I say YOU(R) GUYS PARTY: 17%


I might say it either way: 21%

I don’t use “you guys” or “your guys” this way: 6%

Only 6% of the respondents said they did not use possessive you guys, and the majority did report using two sibilants in the possessive. Of the 53 respondents who eschewed your guys, 39 were in the 18-29 year-old age-group and the remaining 14 were older. We have no survey data on whether speakers use you guys or your guys, though informal observation suggests that the latter predominates.

5.6 Jojos

According to local-lore and the popular press, jojos (with or without a hyphen) are a regional specialty and perhaps even an Oregon term for deep-fried, lightly breaded potato wedges. Anne Marie DiStefano, writing in The Portland Tribune in 2013, confessed to growing up in California and never having heard of jojos before moving to Oregon. She tracked the usage to the early 1960s, suggesting that “the term jojo potatoes was used widely across the country. But not universally. They also were called home fries, wedges, spuds or tater babies — and Shakey’s Pizza trademarked the term ‘mojo potatoes.’” Jojos arose from the popularity of the broaster, invented in the 1950s, which sped up the process of frying foods. According to DiStefano, the Flavor-Crisp company of Creighton, Nebraska, claims the word. She interviewed Ron Echtenkamp, retired president of a company that sold Flavor-Crisp pressure fryers, who explained that the dish arose when salespeople at a trade show used Idaho potato wedges from a nearby vendor to clean the oil in the fryer. Someone set the wedges out on the table and, according to Echtenkamp, one of the salesmen called them jojos. A similar story is told by Paul Nicewonger of Nicewonger Co., a restaurant-supply company in Vancouver, Washington. Nicewonger attributed the story of jojo being coined at a food trade show to his late father, whose company introduced the name into Pacific Northwest markets. In any case, the earliest ad found in seems to be in The Evening Review (of East Liverpool, Ohio) from July 14, 1962, for Kennedy’s Restaurant in Ohio. The ad refers to Kennedy’s “New Flavor-Crisp ½ fried chicken and New jo-jo potatoes.”

Curious about the term, we included the photo below, limiting our question to jojos, steak fries, O’Briens, and potato wedges, but other terms for such fare includes the trademarked “mojos,” “tater babies” or “tater boys.”

Q22 – What name do you use for this food?

Steak Fries


Potato Wedges


44% called them jojos and 43% potato wedges with another 8% opting for steak fries. Among Oregon speakers, the percentage of identifying the spuds as jojos rose to 52%.

6. Comparison with the Harvard Dialect Survey

The Harvard Dialect Survey, an online survey developed by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder consisted of 122 questions about phonetic, lexical, syntactic, and morphological differences in English in the United States. The questions were multiple-choice with a write-in option and used rhyming words to narrow the options for participants. The total number of participants was 30,788, with 385 from Oregon (1.24%) and 860 (2.78%) from Washington. Vaux and Golder’s state breakdown page gives results for 166 respondents from Oregon and 511 from Washington.[19]

Below we consider selected results from their study.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
as in “coop” 56.91% 57.89% 58%
as in “cute” 40.06% 39.70% 21%
19% (both ways)

The number of COOPon speakers is consistent between our 58% and their 56.91% and 57.89% results. Some of Vaux and Golder’s 40% CYEWpon speakers likely alternate.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
as in “say” 52.63% 59.63% 59% (crAYg)
close to “say” 22.99% 18.55%
as in “set” 12.47% 13.02% 41% (crEHg)
close to “set” 11.63% 8.18%

Our two-way distinction yielded about a 60%-40% split between [e] and [ɛ] as compared to the 75.62%-24.1% and 78.18%-21.2% splits in the Harvard Dialect study.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
Mary & marry the same 83%
all 3 are the same 79.44% 78.39%
all 3 are different 2.22% 3.13%
Mary and merry are the same; marry is different 4.72% 5.48
merry and marry are the same; Mary is different .56% .63%
Mary and marry are the same; merry is different 13.06% 12.37%

For simplicity’s sake, we assumed (based on our observations) that Mary and merry were identical for most speakers and asked only about the pronunciation of marry. Vaux and Golder’s 78-79% for all three being pronounced the same is close to our 83%. However, they found 12-13% percent of speakers reporting a Mary/marry homophony distinct from merry, which suggests that the situation is more complicated that we had anticipated.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results

(3 way)

rhymes with “hoot” 17.56% 15.13% 25%
rhymes with “out” 25.78% 35.11% 33%
either way interchangeably 34.84% 32.01% 42%
like “hoot” for the noun and like “out” for the verb. 16.15% 11.78%
like “out” for the noun and like “hoot” for the verb. 4.82% 4.06%
other .85% 1.91%

Details of the percentages aside, our results and Vaux and Golder’s suggest that most speakers either alternate or prefer the ROWT pronunciation.

When we forced a two-way choice, our respondents reported using ROWT 60% of the time. We did not test for a correlation with part of speech.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results (2 way)
sear-up 23.01% 23.81% 28%
sih-rup 14.49% 11.46%
sir-up 61.36% 63.61% 72%

Our results are very close to those of Vaux and Golder, assuming that their “sih-rup” group corresponds to people who opted for our “sir-up” choice.


V & G (Or) V & G (Wa) Our results
Same 87.22% 83.67% 82% (don/daw, hock/hawk)
Different 12.78% 16.33% 18%

The [a]-[ɔ] merger comes in as robust in both surveys.

You guys

Vaux and Golder also asked what words people us to refer to “a group of two or more people” with about 57% responding that they used you guys.

V & G (Or) V & G (Wa)
you all 8.48% 8.59%
you guys 56.73% 56.65%
You 24.85% 27.47%
y’all 6.43% 4.21%

In our study, which asked If you do say “your guys’ party?” or “you guys’ party” do you pronounce it with one s or two? Only 6% of the respondents said they did not use possessive you guys. 94% responded in a way that implied use of you guys.

on accident/by accident

V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
by accident 66.47% 67.63% 11-13%
on accident 11.66% 14.87% 62-65%
Both 18.66% 13.97% 24%

There is a puzzling split between our results and those of Vaux and Golder. We found nearly two-thirds preferring on-accident while their reported results indicated the opposite.

bag, leg and egg raising

V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington)
[bæg] (like “sat”) 86.30% 75.47%
[bɛg] (like “said”) 0% .74%
[beg] (“like “say”) 11.08% 20.49%
Other 2.62% 3.29%

The greater percentage of raising in Washington respondents is intriguing. We did not test for raising of [æ] in bag, though we did consider the [ɛ]-raising in egg and leg.

Our results
EGggs 64%
AYggs 36%
lEHgs 62%
lAYggs 38%

Looking just at Oregon and Washington speakers, 39% of our Oregon respondents said ayggs and 42% responded that they said layggs; 37% of Washingtonians responded with ayggs and 39% with layggs.

Overall OR WA
EGggs 64% 61% 63%
AYggs 36% 39% 37%
lEHgs 62% 58% 61%
lAYggs 38% 42% 39%

7. A Reading Passage

Subjects completing a survey such as ours may have misperceptions about their own pronunciation or usage, the may be unsure or guessing, they may be unduly influenced by spelling, or even misled by clumsily worded questions or transcriptions. As a check, we developed a short reading passage intended to elicit some of the Pacific Northwest distinctions we surveys as well as some others than might not be amenable to a survey method or that might be interesting for class discussion purposes. These are indicated in bold in the passage below, though of course they were not bolded in the actual reading passage. We collected 23 usable samples from speakers, most from speakers from the Pacific Northwest.

Several items in the reading passage parallel ones in the survey: Dawn, marry, Aaron, horrible, coupons, egg, legs, syrup, route, hawk, and center. The items not in the survey such as dude, food, and new reflect the /u/ and /o/ fronting found in the California Vowel Shift. The items both, wash and Washington are possible terms in which we might find an intrusive [l] or [r]. The words that and dad relate to the backing of /æ/, while menu, tent and rented to the pin-pen merger.

The repeated Thank you, thank you, thank you was an attempt to collect data on the counter-raising of [æ] and to use the allegro repetition of the phrase to induce the raising of that vowel. A few words, such as Ian and Ann, aunt, mountains, salmon, almond, greasy, poem, Saturday, and roof are indicators of dialect features not typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. Culinary and Josie were added to contrast with coupon and greasy.

Here is the passage:

Last year my friend Dawn decided to marry this dude named Ian. Both of her brothers, Aaron and Harold, helped plan the wedding menu. That was a horrible mistake.

So, the guests arrived—from Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and there was even one aunt from Florida. Her Mom and Dad had arranged for the wedding to take place in a tent they rented. It was a cool setting, in a park with a view of the mountains.

Anyway, back to the food. It turned out that Aaron and Harold had gotten all the wrong food for the reception. They had supermarket coupons and bought random stuff: little hot dogs, salmon with almond sauce, milky egg salad, greasy chicken legs, and melting ice-cream cake covered with chocolate syrup. It was a culinary nightmare. Luckily Dawn’s friends Ann, Mary and Josie retraced the route to the store, and bought some real wedding food. It was a miracle that everything worked out, and Dawn’s parents just kept saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Then just as the ceremony was ending and Mary was reading a poem called “Saturday,” a red-tailed hawk swooped into the center of the tent and snagged some of the salmon. It almost got stuck under the roof but didn’t. Dawn and Ian got married and went on their honeymoon. As for Dawn’s brothers, their new job was to wash the dishes from the party.

As a check on the Qualtrix survey, we also asked the passage readers to respond to the short survey below, which was checked against their recorded pronunciations.

  1. How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words DON and DAWN?

the same differently

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word SYRUP as


  1. Do you usually pronounce the word ROUTE as

rUWt (like boot) rOWt (like out)

  1. Do you usually pronounce HORRIBLE as

HAR-ible HOAR-ible

  1. Do you usually pronounce EGGS more like EHggs or AIggs

EHggs (with the EH vowel in get) AIggs (with the AY vowel in say)

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:

COOP-on CUE-pon I pronounce it both ways

  1. How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words MARRY and MERRY?

the same differently

  1. Do you pronounce THANK YOU as more like

thAHnk you (like the vowel in drank) thEHnk you (like the vowel in pen)

  1. Do you pronounce OFTEN as

AWFen AWFten

  1. Do you say the names ERIN and AARON

the same differently

  1. Do you pronounce the words HOCK and HAWK

the same differently

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word LEGS more like LEHggs or LAYggs?

LEHggs (with the vowel in less) LAYggs (with the vowel in lay)

Comparing actual pronunciation to reported pronunciation for 23 speakers, we found that an 89% accuracy in identifying one’s own pronunciation.[20]

8. What we learned and what’s next

8.1 Struggles

There were some rough spots. In the initial survey, we collected demographic data in a relatively open-ended fashion, asking about hometowns and parents’ hometowns, with respondents giving both leaving both gaps and giving answers like “military brat” or “moved around a lot.” We did collect zip codes, which facilitates the eventual mapping task, but we first collected age as numbers, which required us to regroup the data later to get age ranges.

Asking about social class and their perceptions of their own speech also proved to be interesting in that most self-identified as middle class and self-identified as “a better than average speaker/writer of English” (not surprising since many were English or linguistics majors). The later iterations of the survey (2015 forward) supplemented the self-identification of social class with a question about income levels, though many subjects preferred not to answer that. Later iterations of the survey also contained fewer questions, age ranges, a full list of US states and regional universities, and a question about whether hometowns were urban, rural and suburban.

We struggled with the best folk orthography for questions. From 2015 onward survey we added some homophones to the answers in the hopes that questions would be easier to follow. We initially collected data on the pronunciation of thank, but stopped because it seemed that respondents were unduly influenced toward thAHnk by orthography; only 98 responded identified thEHnk as corresponding to their pronunciation suggesting that thank might be better studied in a reading passage.

Going forward, we might drop some of the questions related to issues that seem well-resolved among young Pacific Northwesterners and add some new items, such as bag and beg, and bit and bet. The reading passage too could be simplified (respondents especially struggled with the phrase “salmon with almond sauce” and other tongue twisters that arose from our trying to do too much).

8.2 Learning opportunities

The most rewarding aspect of the research has been the way in which the work of studying data on regional speech—and their own speech—has engaged students in language study and critical thinking about language. By involving students in a local survey and discussing the issues connected to language variation and change that they can observe, we are able to engage them at several levels—as consumers of surveys and media, as thinkers about language and linguistic diversity, as speakers of a particular region, and as co-investigators in research.

The in-class discussions that arise from the survey debriefs are especially rich. Since many of the students are planning careers in fields in which they will be working with language, the survey experience gives them a first-hand look at the variability of speech and at language change in progress. Students think about their own usage, about where they came from about what has influenced their speech, and about the codes and styles that they switch into and out of. They also think about language they encounter in their lives and become curious about language and less prescriptive in their outlooks.

Various activities and discussions that can be tied to the survey questions. Here are a few we have attempted (but certainly not honed to perfection).

  1. Discussing the loss of the old singular second person (thee, thou, thy) forms and the re-emergence of the plural (you guys) in relation to the extension of the third person they, them, their, a topic which is on the minds of students. Discussion of pronouns can reinforce the idea that such forms have shifted for social reasons in the past.
  2. Introducing and critiquing the principle of “one form—one meaning” as it relates to by accident and on accident, and other terms. One reader of an early draft of this report commented that it seemed like a dumb thing for language change to create “confusing” homophones like Dawn and Don and Erin and Aaron. We have the opportunity to illustrate that the logic of language change does not always match our preconceptions of what makes sense communicatively.
  3. Identifying and documenting other instances of preposition variation, which tends to be less remarked upon than other types of variation (such as waiting “in line” or “on line” or getting something “on the internet” or “off the internet”).
  4. Taking jo-jos as the point of departure, exploring further variation among other culinary terms (including server slang, as described by Adams (2009). Students might design and administer their own food term surveys or research local eateries.
  5. Extending the analysis of selected terms using dictionaries and databases, such as the OED, The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) or the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).
  6. Researching the history of parallels between guys and dudes, the history of guy (Metcalf 2019) and some of the contemporary criticism of the term’s use (Carey 2016, Pinkster 2018).
  7. Studying intensification and the emergence of hella and others forms (see for example Ito and Tagliamonte 2003).
  8. Introducing acoustic analysis of select vowels via Praat (Van Lieshout, 2003, Wassink 2016, Freeman 2013, 2014, Becker, et al. 2016).
  9. Research on local communities and on identity and affiliation, perhaps involving map tasks (Hartley 1999, Evans 2011, 2013), local history (Denham 2019), or dialect Story Maps (Szukalski and Carroll, 2019).

8.3 Next steps

What is next? We are considering relaunching the survey in the fall of 2020, perhaps inviting a wider swath of participants from Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. Along with this, we may wish to add a simplified reading passage and a (short) wordlist that can be used for acoustic analysis, and which can be recorded on a phone. Eventually, we might identify key communities in the Pacific Northwest for a comprehensive survey to be done in conjunction with presentations on dialect and linguistic diversity to include audio and video samples. An ideal next step would be an app that provided some feedback and a systematic expansion of the survey to other Oregon, Washington, and Northern California universities. We also will want to promote the work and the connection to teaching, diversity, and local history in order to generate interest in the survey from potential participants and partners.


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[last rev. 7/22/2020]

  1. The earliest versions of the survey had 46 questions, 35 of which had to do which language and 10 of which were demographic.
  2. The MLA Language Map Data Center provides information about over three hundred languages spoken in the United States, using data from the American Community Survey and the 2000 US Census. See
  3. Since the survey was available by link, some students invited roommates and others to participate and we know of at least one faculty member who took the survey along with a class.
  4. Additionally, we asked about parents’ hometown but the results were too unsystematic to be helpful other than anecdotally.
  5. See also Conn (2000), Esling and Warkentyle (1993), Foster and Hoffman (1966), Denham (2019), Becker (2019b), Wassink (2019), Fridland, et al. (2016, 2017), Kennedy and Grama, James. (2012) and Luthin (1987)..
  6. According to Ward, “both Canadian and California English share the low back vowel merger, a lowering of front lax vowels, a retraction of /æ/, a centralization of / ʌ/, and some degree of fronting in the tense back vowels /ow, uw/ and the back lax vowel /u/” (Ward, 42). The California Shift parallels the Canadian Shift, with the apparent distinction that the Californian /ɒ/ is more centralized and less rounded than Canadian /ɒ/. Those studying the Canadian shift are also still trying to resolve the details of the shift of the vowels in kid and dress, particularly focusing on regional variation within Canada, on whether the shifts are lowerings or retraction, and whether both the /i/ and /ɛ/ are involved. Boberg (2008) also notes that /æ/-raising before /g/ is a regional indicator for the Prairies. See also Becker (2019a).
  7. The exceptions are New England and parts of New York City and New Jersey. See the discussion on the Linguist List ( There is considerable variation in the U.K. pronunciation of Aaron and Erin.
  8. See Bigham (2005), Koops, Gentry, and Pantos (2008), Thomas (1958), and Brown (1991) for more discussion.
  9. Palatalization before /u:/ tends to occur in some relatively well-defined phonetic situations, such as when the /u:/ occurs at the beginning of a work as in university or usual. Palatalization is especially robust after labial consonants in American English. These include the stops /m/, /p/, and /b/ (as in mute, amuse, pew, pure, puerile, repute, beauty, bureau, vocabulary, constabulary) and also the fricatives /f/ and /v/ (as in fuse, fuel, fuel, futile, view, revue, uvula). Palatalization is not automatic after these sounds, however, and spelling is often a clue: pew and pooh, beauty and booty, feud and food, mute and moot. Not long ago one of us heard someone pronounce the name [Stanley] Kubrick as CUE-brick and the name Pulitzer often has a glide (though Joseph Pulitzer insisted it did not). Aside from such pronunciation, it turns out that the palatalized versions of many common words are often the older forms, still used among many speakers of British and Canadian English: due, tune, dune, news, lewd, and so on. Twentieth-century American speech tended to drop these palatal glides.
    Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:
    COOP-on CYEW-pon I pronounce it both ways Total
    How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 18 11 11 40
    Lower Middle Class/Working Class 174 76 65 315
    Middle Class 68 40 34 142
    Upper Middle Class/Affluent 233 79 64 376
    Total 493 206 174

  10. Some of the speakers who report pronouncing coupon both ways also report having different meanings for the pronunciations: physical ones that you would cut out would be CYEWpons but other kinds, such as internet coupons, are COOPons.
  11. See Merriam Webster adds that “We are definitely not advocating that anyone should use those pronunciations [ … ] or that they should abandon the others that are regarded as more acceptable.”
  12. Barrett notes that one poster to the Linguist List (Patricia Kuhlman) even recalled its being used in the 1950s in a rural area outside Chicago, Illinois. Barrett adds that the rise of on accident remains unclear and that analogy with on purpose is at best a partial account. Other suggestions include reanalysis of “an accident” as “on accident.”
  13. One speaker suggested that on accident is used when a person is involved and by accident is used when animacy is not involved, which is worth exploring.
  14. There’s also a later development in which dude means “a foolish or obnoxious fellow,” and the DARE gives a 1970 citation of “There were a lot of good kids in that school. Also, a lot of dudes, but a lot of good kids, too.” So perhaps dude expanded that pretentious newbie sense for some speakers.
  15. Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, in a 2010 post on their Grammarphobia blog, note that both legit and legitly are used as adverbs, but say, rather too prescriptively in our view, that “we find them clunky, and wouldn’t recommend either one.”
  16. See Thrasher, August 1986, p. 71, Asked if the drug scene scared him, Hetfield replied “Yeah, hella,” saying later that “If people are into it that’s cool, they wouldn’t mind about the subject we’re talking about. I was at that party and it freaked me out and I’m hella paranoid.”
  17. Bucholtz explains that the data were written by graduating seniors as part of paid personal messages to friends, family, and others printed at the back of the yearbook. See also Bucholtz, et al. (2009).
  18. On the plural second person forms, see Richardson (1984), Maynor. (1996) Spencer (1975), Ching (2001). For singular “y’all” can be singular, see Tillery and Bailey (1998) and Butters (2001).
  19. The Harvard dialect study was the basis for Joshua Katz’s Heat Maps which took population density into account for data visualization; see Katz (2013) and media coverage in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. The New York Times dialect quiz (based on the Harvard Dialect study) was one of that newspaper’s most successful interactive links.
  20. We included the item often in the survey but not on tape as a further check of our online survey; here 30% responded with AWFEN and 70% with AWFTEN, close to our online results of 25%/75% AWFEN/AWFTEN.
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