Verbs in th—

My colleague Alice asked me yesterday to come up with some verbs beginning with ‘th’, not including think, for a pronunciation exercise she was contemplating. I suggested theorise, but since the subject of the verb was a cat and a dog, that didn’t work. She went with think as more plausible (although if my cats are not theorising when they look out of the window hour after hour, then I don’t know what they are doing).

I provisionally concluded that there are not that many verbs in th. Think and theorise, and that’s about it. Then I thought of thump. A bit later thrill popped into my head. Then much later, throw. How could I forget throw? Then later still, thrive. Then thwack. Then theatricalise, thin, thicken, thunder, thatch, threaten, thieve, and of course thwump.

By this time I had understood that I clearly do not store verbs beginning with ‘th’ together (although I should point out that when I asked my ten-year-old son the same question at dinner he rattled off half a dozen in short order). The process of retrieval was painfully slow, and probably explains why I’m not much good at crosswords. Words pop up instead by odd association, if I’m lucky, or not at all. And the context is rarely ‘find words in th‘.

Which makes me wonder how I am asking my students to store their vocabulary. I am reluctant to shower them with phrasal verbs (insane!), but I certainly do ask them to think in terms of thematic groups (natural enough) and by commonality of form (not natural at all). Thus perceive and receive and conceive and deceive share a noun in -eption. But is that useful to know? Perhaps if you are cramming for your CAE, but not if actually want to, y’know, speak English.

Or perhaps a bit of cross-training is no bad thing. Group perception and reception and conception, by all means, but also group reception with phone, and perception with public, and conception with immaculate (and perhaps note in passing receipt and percept, and concept). 

But that’s not really how I seem to store my words. I mostly seem to store them wherever there happens to be a scrap of space, on the nearest bit of unlabelled mental shelving. Open a cupboard of the mind, and who knows what lumber will tumble out – which perhaps explains why I had taught my group of first-day students horse-drawn carriage and gregarious within five minutes of meeting them yesterday morning, and why Alice later felt the need to have those same students memorise something about theorising cats thwumping thieving dogs. 


Do I want to be the best I can be? Well, sort of.

I was talking to one of my students earlier this week about productivity. She told me that when she returned to work after a period of several years away on maternity leave, she realised that she had to be much more efficient in her use of time than before, because now she had a family and other calls on her time. So she started to look for ways to increase her productivity.

Tableau I, by Piet MondriaanWhile her search was prompted and informed by a general sense of anxiety that there was not much time, the result of her search was much more piecemeal. She might find, she said, a particular software tool that sped up one process by 5%. Or she might adjust the order of actions in a given process so that she could finish a given task 3% sooner. And so on. There were many very small gains. But the net effect was that she perceived that she now worked at a hugely improved rate, compared with previously, and with much less overtime.

This is a little like Sir Clive Woodward’s famous approach to coaching rugby where, prior to England winning the world cup in 2003, he applied a 1% rule: since it was not possible to achieve a competitive advantage over rivals by doing one or two thing better, the aim was to improve by a small percentage over a range of areas; in the aggregate, the theory went, you would improve by a lot compared with your rivals. This included worrying obsessively about diet, training regimes, selection requirements, shirt fabrics, toothpaste flavour, wallpaper colour and so on. Nothing was too trivial. There was no silver bullet, according to Woodward; only marginal gains, across the board.

So it occurs to me to wonder why we don’t all learn that lesson. Is there a reason why we do not want to maximise our efficiency? Perhaps. Perhaps our brains are not optimised for efficiency. And if they are not optimised for efficiency, there must a reason: we must be optimised for something else. Taking our time, for instance. Conserving energy. Building relationships. Loafing around. It is well known, for example, that older workers are typically less flexible, learn less fast, and work more slowly; but they also tend to make fewer mistakes.

So that leaves us in something of a quandary, where language learning is concerned: maximum efficiency, or a bit of loafing around? I throw the floor open.

Likelihood and Probability

I often talk to my students about how to discuss likelihood and express probability and odds in English, and I usually tell them that likelihood and probability are synonyms, with likelihood being more conversational and probability perhaps more precisely calculated. If you ask someone about the probability of rain, it will sound like you want your answer expressed as a percentage; if you ask about the likelihood, a shrug or a snort of derision may very well do.

But in statistical terms, likelihood and probability are opposites. That is, likelihood expresses the chance that a hypothesis is true given an observation or a series of observations; and probability expresses the opposite: the probability that an observable instance will occur given the truth of a hypothesis.

Whom do we have to thank for this admirable and sadly neglected increase in the precision of the language? R.A. Fisher.

r-_a-_fischerSir Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1980-1962), a graduate of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, was a pioneer in statistical biology, (he was, to be precise, a biostatistician) who ran a research institute at Rothamstead in Hertfordshire, just south of Cambridge, and established the field of the analysis of variance, working with crop data going back to the 1840s to unpick the variables causing variation in crop characteristics. His work was fundamental to the synthesis of Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics. He has been called the ‘greatest biologist since Darwin’ (Richard Dawkins) and a genius responsible for ‘the foundations of modern statistical science’ (Anders Hald).

But he is not, perhaps, so well know. Statistics, however vital, is in the popular imagination a dry pursuit, a dusty science. And yet our failure to think can often be traced to our failure to think statistically. In the context of likelihood and probability (loosely understood), I sometimes give my students the following brain-teaser:

You hear a young woman described as a “shy poetry lover”. Do you think she is more likely [probable?] to study Chinese literature or business administration?

The answer, as R.A. Fisher would have sussed instantly, is business administration. Information about the young lady’s interests is largely irrelevant. And there we have the beauty of R.A. Fisher and his rows of peas and beans – he was able to cut through the noise and mess of real life and isolate the salient variables. The question remains, however, whether allowing my students a glimpse of this clarity by more precisely glossing likelihood and probability for their benefit is in itself a move in the direction of clarity, or of noise. I rather fear the latter.


‘Winter is established.’
Gilbert White, November 16th, 1783 (Hampshire)

I do not know that November is a good time for study, especially: it sits too far adrift from the start of the academic year in September, when enthusiasm is high, and the end of the academic year is still a distant dream. The clocks have gone back, and things chug on in the gloom.

But there is study, and there is study. It is one thing to be sat in a classroom, drinking coffee, looking out at the rain, and finding alternative (and printable) words for the Cambridge weather; it is another thing entirely to be digging in the mud.


Just down the road from where I live, they have begun an archaeological dig. They are excavating the field just next to the Leper Chapel, a twelfth century edifice which stands in glorious isolation in a crook of the railway and the Newmarket Road. The Leper chapel was once one of the richest sinecures in England, commanding as it did the Stourbridge Fair, the largest fair in medieval Europe.

The field adjacent must once, I suppose, have been the leper hospital. They are excavating it now, preparatory to running the Chisholm Trail through it (see yesterday’s blog on the Chisholm Trail, here). It is a fit object of study. It will probably yield interesting finds. They will scrape in the mud and find nothing; and then one day they will find something, or stand back and see the shape of something, and it will all have been worthwhile.

But each day when I pass I see archaeologists stooping the mud and the rain and the cold, and I think myself lucky that I work indoors, in a classroom, and that we have a coffee machine bubbling away (figuratively, I hope) downstairs. Any sort of labour which involves stooping is anathema to my knees, and while I like to be out and about from time to time, the novelty of working outdoors rapidly wears off for me. I will sit this winter out, if all goes well, looking at the grey sky and the drizzle from room 5, drinking my hot coffee, and dreaming of spring with my students.

Chisholm Trail

If American towns were largely shaped in the era of the automobile, in Britain it was the railway which deformed the urban landscape. A town such as Cambridge, with its small medieval core, spread out along the axis of the new railway line which, while it connected Cambridge to other centres of population, disturbed the movement of people within the city.

When you have a railway running into a town, bridges have to be built over it, streets curtailed or diverted around and alongside it, traffic funnelled over it or under it. You can travel very quickly to Norwich or London, but to get from the Newmarket Road to Hills Road takes a bit of imaginative winding. The railway, psychogeographers will tell you, is an irrational, coercive presence.

But Cambridge is now being shaped by the needs of another cutting edge technology: the bicycle. And the railway and the bicycle might just turn out to be friends. To the chagrin of motorists, cyclists are accustomed to utilising the interstices of the city – pavements, parks, towpaths, traffic islands, front gardens, back gardens, and so on – to navigate the city better.

And now a new liminal space is opening up. In the mid 1990s, a Cambridge resident called Jim Chisholm noticed that the railway was skirted on both sides by strips of waste land, and began to understand that turning this land into a path or series of paths for pedestrians and cyclists which followed the railway would in fact link the town in felicitous ways. You could, for example, walk from Trumpington to the Science Park in half an hour (or something similar).

And now the Chisholm Trail is an actual thing, passing through various council planning departments and committees. It will involve the reclaiming of some tracts of land, the building of some bridges, the widening of some existing paths, and so on. But I estimate, for the benefit of the city council, that such a route would shave three-and-a-half minutes off my morning commute. Over a year, that amounts to 14 hours extra preparation time, or 14 hours extra in bed, depending on your productivity coefficient (mine is not high, admittedly). And that’s before you factor in the return journey. You may not be able to drive your dogies along it, but multiply my journey by several thousand, and hey presto!, you have a little bonanza of time in the post-Brexit gloom.



It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange
  The more things happen to you the more you can’t
     Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
  The talk would talk and go so far aslant,
     You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

William Empson, Let it Go

I am not as fond as I should be, I think, of silence in the classroom. My own experience of learning anything is that getting my head down quietly means productive work; talking equates to getting not much done. And yet I jabber at my students and provide a range of babbling stimuli, and all in all we get a whole lot of talk under our belts.

Learning a language, of course, is about talk: talking is what we want to learn to do. Sitting speechless is a sign of failure. There are not too many students, these days, who want to learn a language predominantly for the purpose of reading, say, or listening, even if those are in many ways the most profitable, not to mention the most beautiful, things you can do in a foreign language (if not the most useful: that remains ordering a beer).

Which I suppose points to one reason why the US Election, or the Brexit campaign, were so wearisome. An election campaign is all about the talk. Everyone has something to say. But repeat a word enough times and it starts to lose all meaning, as the neuronal clusters associated with that word adapt to the stimulus and cease to register it; listen to the same talk for long enough and it starts to disassemble before your ears. The talk would talk, said William Empson, and go so far aslant.

I was talking to my students a couple of weeks ago about the merits of silence. One – not a great talker – said that he would like to spend a year in a monastery, preferably in the Himalayas. I asked him why. For the silence. And he is right. There is a difference between the sort of thought that comes in busyness or activity, and the sort that comes after prolonged silence. Prolonged silence argues lack of stimulation. Stimulate a hair on the back of your hand long enough, and you will soon feel nothing at all. Perhaps letting my students sit for a while in deep blankness wouldn’t be the worst use of their time.


I do not sing much as I work. This is perhaps marginally more of a relief to my students than to my co-workers – my students, after all, are paying for my presence; my co-workers are merely paying the price for my presence – but they should be aware that I am fighting the good fight on their behalf, because I am, like everyone else, prone to earworms.

Earworms (or, to musicologists, involuntary musical imagery) are a facet of entrainment, the almost exclusively human capacity to group-synchronise to a given pulse. In other words, the repetition, usually of a refrain in a song or a rhythmic sequence, sparks an intuitive and often collective response in all of us, be it foot-tapping, swaying, dancing, or singing.

Psychomusicologists incline to the belief that the earworm is a ‘snapshot’ of a given song, a sort of storage index; from that earworm, the whole song can be reconstituted. And it is usually the refrain of the song that sticks.

Repetition lies at the heart of it. In a bizarre demonstration of the association of repetition and song, created by the neuro-psychologist Diana Deutsch, the repetition of a snatch of spoken language takes on song-like qualities, even when replaced in its original stream of speech. We are programmed, in other words, to encode language in song-like patterns (hear the two sound demos here – well worth a listen).

And good students of languages know this. One of the best language learners I ever knew told me that she started to learn Italian by imitating the cadence and intonation of spoken utterance long before she understood what the utterance meant. The sound appealed to her, and she copied it, unthinkingly. Such as approach would not work for everyone, but it stands diametrically opposed to the rather less compelling logico-constructive approach, wherein the language is treated as a rule-based system in which individual packets of utterance can be built up into fluent streams of speech. But even in that case, most students become aware, sooner or later, that repetition of key elements lies at the heart of success.

So who knows? Perhaps I should let go and sing more in class, and gift my students a few earworms of good English. There is, after all, an argument that entrainment is selected for evolutionarily because it induces the blood trance, the state of mind necessary to engage in mammoth hunting or tribal warfare. And inducement of the blood-trance is a language-learning tool I have yet to explore.

For more on entrainment, refrain, and earworms, have a look at the What Literature Knows About your Brain blog, here