The Trouble with Phone Books

If you're reading this blog, then you probably have no use for a phone book. You can get any phone number you need with the browser you're using right now just as easily as you navigated here to As of 2007, more than half of American households had broadband internet access. And yet, 615 million phone books were distributed in the U.S. last year -- nearly two for every man, woman and child.

It's a thrice-yearly ritual in my neighborhood: Yellow Pages from Verizon, DEX or AT&T are unceremoniously dumped on doorsteps up and down the street. Many remain there for weeks to come; of those that eventually disappear, most are tossed. Of those that are tossed, a national average of less than 40% end up in the recycling bin. That's a lot of waste. Another, perhaps flossier, way to think about those 615 million phone books is that, stacked end-to-end, they would circle the Earth more than four times. By some estimates, nearly 5% of landfill waste falls under the category "directories." phonebooks.jpg

So they're obsolete. Unsightly. A pain to dispose of. But how wasteful are they? A recently California study estimates that to make 500 phone books, you need the pulp from somewhere between 17-31 trees; you need about 7,000 gallons of water, and you need enough kilowatt hours of power to run a three-bedroom home for about 3-6 months. (And that's not even taking into account the gasoline you need to truck those books right to your doorstep.)

A lot of people agree, it would be great to get fewer phone books. Maybe even none; I currently have zero in my house and am getting along just fine. But the companies that make the various competing Yellow Pages don't make that very easy. The circulation numbers they use to determine the cost of ads in their books depend on how many homes they can reach, and it's $14 billion a year industry -- not easily dismantled or retooled without political or economic pressure being brought to bear. Right now, there are laws in various states being considered that would make mandatory a do-not-drop list -- similar to the national do-not-call list -- though many anti-directory advocates would prefer an opt-in system rather than an opt-out system.

The one kind of phone number I can't seem to find online? The one that connects you to the phone book companies -- so I can opt out of receiving their directories. (I found several listed; none were working.)

Has anyone out there figured out a way to stop these accursed books?

How Do You Stress the Word: THANKSgiving or ThanksGIVing?

Here’s something else to stress about for Thanksgiving: where to put the stress in the word Thanksgiving.

If you’re from California, Iowa, or Delaware, you probably say ThanksGIVing, with the primary stress on the second syllable. If you’re from Georgia, Tennessee, or the Texas Panhandle, you probably say THANKSgiving, with the primary stress on the first syllable.

This north-south divide on syllable stress is found for other words like umbrella, guitar, insurance, and pecan. However, those words are borrowed from other languages (Italian, Spanish, French). Sometimes, in the borrowing process, competing stress patterns settle into regional differences. Just as some borrowed words get first syllable stress in the South and second syllable stress in the North, French words like garage and ballet get first syllable stress in the UK and second syllable stress in the U.S.

Thanksgiving, however, is an English word through and through. And if it behaved like a normal English word, it would have stress on the first syllable. Consider other words with the same noun-gerund structure just like it: SEAfaring, BAbysitting, HANDwriting, BULLfighting, BIRDwatching, HOMEcoming, ALMSgiving. The stress is always up front, on the noun. Why, in Thanksgiving alone, would stress shift to the GIVE?

The shift to the ThanksGIVing pronunciation is a bit of a mystery. Linguist John McWhorter has suggested that the loss of the stress on thanks has to do with a change in our concept of the holiday, that we “don’t truly think about Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore.” This kind of thing can happen when a word takes on a new, more abstract sense. When we use outgoing for mail that is literally going out, we are likely to stress the OUT. When we use it as a description of someone’s personality ("She's so outgoing!"), the stress might show up on the GO. Stress can shift with meaning.

But the stress shift might not be solely connected to the entrenchment of our turkey-eating rituals. The thanksGIVing stress pattern seems to have pre-dated the institution of the American holiday, according to an analysis of the meter of English poems by Mark Liberman at Language Log. ThanksGIVing has been around at least since the 17th century. However you say it, there is precedent to back you up. And room enough to focus on both the thanks and the giving.

TAKWest, Youtube
Watch Boris Karloff's 1966 Coffee Commercial
TAKWest, Youtube
TAKWest, Youtube

Horror legend Boris Karloff is famous for playing mummies, mad scientists, and of course, Frankenstein’s creation. In 1930, Karloff cemented the modern image of the monster—with its rectangular forehead, bolted neck, and enormous boots (allegedly weighing in at 11 pounds each)—in the minds of audiences.

But the horror icon, who was born 130 years ago today, also had a sense of humor. The actor appeared in numerous comedies, and even famously played a Boris Karloff look-alike (who’s offended when he’s mistaken for Karloff) in the original Broadway production of Arsenic and Old Lace

In the ’60s, Karloff also put his comedic chops to work in a commercial for Butter-Nut Coffee. The strange commercial, set in a spooky mansion, plays out like a movie scene, in which Karloff and the viewer are co-stars. Subtitles on the bottom of the screen feed the viewer lines, and Karloff responds accordingly. 

Watch the commercial below to see the British star selling coffee—and read your lines aloud to feel like you’re “acting” alongside Karloff. 

[h/t: Retroist]


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