Bats**t crazy

The other day I was listening to something on NPR and they started talking about a time in history when it was realized that bat guano could be used for fertilizer, driving up the price for bat guano astronomically and giving Peru its first economic boom after independence from Spain. One of the speakers said something like “The price of bat guano literally went bats**t crazy”. I really, really wanted this to be the actual origin of the expression “bats**t crazy”, so last night I went looking for it.

One explanation seems to be that it’s just related to the expression “bats in the belfry”. (

Others think that “bats**t” originated in the US military in the 1950s, although it seems to have been another varient of “bulls**t” at the time and then maybe morphed into meaning “crazy” later.

I like this proposition best:

Could it have anything to do with the fact that the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum resides in bat guano, and, since the fungus infects the brain of the host, makes them behave in a psychotic manner?


That doesn’t seemed to have picked up any traction, but it’s the most intellectually satisfying explanation in a field in which none of the explanations appears to be widely accepted.

Just can’t trust those lyin’ atoms

Yesterday my sister and I went to the Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, where I saw someone wearing a t-shirt like this one:


Atom tshirt

I kind of ruined it for my sister, who actually *has* this t-shirt, by launching into a diatribe that went something like this:

That’s really interesting. “Make up” is one of the phrasal verbs that usually can either be left together (like in “She made a up a story” or “I picked up the baby”) or split up (like in “She made a story up” or “I picked the baby up”). But you can’t get both readings “Everything is composed of atoms” and “Atoms lie about everything” if you split the phrasal verb up. So that would put the “make up”/”lie” verb in the same category as other phrasal verbs like “go into”, which can’t be split up. So you can say, “She went into astrophysics” but not “She went astrophysics into”.

This is why my sister doesn’t like to talk to me about language.

Learning some coding

I have never coded. I learned a few HTML tags years ago, before it was easy to do such things on sites like this one, but I could not actually write and run a program. I am learning R right now, for use in statistical analysis. The idea is that I will be able to run statistical analyses on data collected in my research.

For now, I have a small amount of data testing how well different methods work in helping students better understand a variety of accents, in the context of a class I started teaching last fall. I have numbers and percentages, but have not run ANOVA on it or anything like that, so I don’t know if the improvements I see are statistically significant for the various methods I have used in class. I would really like to understand what works, because many of our students go on to work in multilingual environments, using English as a lingua franca, and we need to help prepare them for that. I have tried to design my lessons based on isolating the sounds in the different accents that differ from “standard” American English, which the students are generally pretty familiar with. (And that’s more or less what I speak.) But this semester I did a lesson where we just watched an Indian movie that was mostly in English (about 25% was in Hindi), and the results were pretty good for that lesson. That was kind of disappointing, but I would like to see if the results were actually significant.

For now, in my statistics class, we are doing baby statistics and learning to use RStudio to run the numbers for us. I am finding it challenging, both because of the actual coding and because RStudio is a little quirky and takes some getting used to. I need to find people and online communities that I can consult with questions once I get home, because I can tell this is not something I will feel comfortable using without support for the foreseeable future.

Linguist? Language teacher? Both? How?

As I opened this page to write my first post, the prompt for a title appeared at the top of the page. I’m not really sure what to call a first post in a new blog, so I am hoping that something will come to me as I write.

I completed my Ph.D. in Linguistics in 2009, with a dissertation on the morphosyntax of a Bantu language that is similar to Swahili. Several days after turning in my final printed dissertation, I left for France with my three-year-old in tow to begin a new position as an assistant professor of English in an engineering school. I am the only formally trained linguist in my department, which can feel pretty isolating in terms of talking about research, or even about how my knowledge of linguistics influences my teaching. I no longer work on the morphosyntax of Bantu languages, and I have struggled to transition into other areas of research, with the limited amount of time that I have to work on research. Here are some of the broad questions I am interested in as a linguist who is also a language teacher:

How can knowledge of linguistics be used in the classroom most effectively?

What is going on in the minds of our Chinese students who work regularly in both English (L2) and French (L3)? What happens to their English as their French takes off? I am particularly interested in how their expanding understanding of the French tense system affects their use of the English tense system.

How can we help students learn to better understand a wider variety of accents? (This is a recent project) How useful is it to isolate the systemic pronunciation differences between a particular accent and a “standard” variety of English?

I hope to use this blog to explore some of these issues and other questions related to linguistics, language or language teaching. As a parent of bilingual children, I will probably also write about my children’s bilingualism.