My 50-Cent Masters Degree in English Language

Earning your Masters Degree in English Language takes intense concentration, five years of dedicated study, social-avoidant application, and plain old hard work. It also takes considerable funding—around $117,421.65. Mine cost 50 cents.

Now, I’m not knocking formal education from a reputable and prestigious institute of higher learning. No. Not at all. Nothing compares to personal exposure from profs and peers. But the end result, knowing linguistic principles and how to find/use English writing resources to polish your prose, is what an English language degree is all about.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from.

I’m a cheap SOB. I rarely pay full pop for anything, including books. The other week, I was snooping in a thrift shop and checking their used book section. There it was. This behemoth titled The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

It was on an upper shelf and darn near took out my rotator cuff lifting it down. Whoa! This thing is like new! It was hard covered, bound in faux leather with faux gold-gilded page ends, and—I swear to God—had nearly two thousand of them chocked-full of every detail on the English language you can imagine.

I set it on a display counter and browsed. The copyright page said 1988, but that didn’t worry me none about being outa date. We’re talkin’ English here. Surely the words and structures haven’t changed much in thirty-three years except for some new-fangled lingo like “smartphone”, “pumpkin spice”, and “Covid19”. Let’s look at the good stuff—timeless stuff—like gerunds, compound predicates, interjections, inverted orders, irregular comparison of adjectives, prepositional phrases, and that elusive eunuch called a dangling modifier.

There’s something about a book of quality. You know. The paper book that’s perfectly typeset—bound so you can lay its front cover-spine-back cover on a surface and each page, as you turn, lies perfectly flat without having to weight one side and the other with a cordless drill and a ceramic garden gnome.

This is exquisite. The table of contents aroused me. Preface. Staff. History of the English Language. Languages of the World. Guide and Use of the Dictionary. Editorial Abbreviations. Pronunciation Key. English Handbook. An 1144 page dictionary?  If I knew everything in here, it’d be like having a masters degree in the English language.

With both hands that should’ve been in white gloves, I carried this treasure to the till. “I don’t see any price marked,” I said to the till-lady who looked like a hard-core, 50’s librarian crossed with an inked biker-chick, reluctantly volunteering at the hospital auxiliary store or maybe completing a plea-bargained, community work service program.

Anxiously, I awaited her answer.

Over cat-eye glasses, she read a corrugated poster board suspended from the ceiling by thick butcher twine. It stated their general price assignments. “Let’s see… looks like all our books are fifty cents apiece.” She cat-eyed at me. “No dickering, though.”

My vitals reacted. “You… you… you only want fifty cents for this?”

“Says fifty cents for all books.” She looked at something below the cat eyes. “Looks like you found yourself a bargain.”

Start The Car!  I did. I got the equivalent of a Masters Degree in English Language for a half-buck. Call it two quarters or a fifty-cent piece. Far, far less than a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte or the ridiculous rate for the parking ticket pinned to my windshield.

I took her home, this big book of English language. I call her “her” because I think English gets the Germanic short schtick from romance languages like French which is my wife, Rita’s, first language and I try to be romantic with Rita because being romantic with Rita usually pays off even though I don’t speak more than five words of proper French nor does Rita want me to.

I poured two fingers of Scotch and sat down to enjoy her. Her title somewhat perplexed me—The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. Now, everybody’s heard of Noah Webster, and everyone’s got his dictionary. Encyclopedia? Duh. Remember back in grade school when you were either on Team Britannica or Team World Book?

Hmmm… I see what they’re doing here. They’re blending an all-encompassing dictionary in with an encyclopedia strictly dedicated to English language structure. Right on! But, what’s a Lexicon?

I was tempted to Google it. However, the answer was right in the preface. “Lexicon can be a book containing an alphabetical arrangement of the words in a language and their definitions; the vocabulary of a language, an individual speaker or group of speakers, or a subject; or the total stock of morphemes in a language.”

Morphemes? I had to Google that one, and I suppose that anyone with a Masters Degree in English Language would know that “a morpheme is the smallest meaningful lexical item in a language. A morpheme is not necessarily the same as a word. The main difference between a morpheme and a word is that a morpheme sometimes does not stand alone, but a word, by definition, always stands alone.”

I didn’t know that. I found out there were a lot of things I didn’t know about the English language as I paged through her, The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language. There was a short history lesson that clearly documented our language’s evolution from Old English through Middle English and on to Early Modern English. I especially got a kick out of the spelling and sound of the West Saxon version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6 of the Bible’s King James Version. It’s impossible to reproduce on my modern keyboard so I’ve attached a photo/screen shot.

Try pronouncing this gibberish after a few triple whiskeys. Reminds me of a guy named Rod Tubbs who was in our police poker club. Tubbs spoke like this halfway and worse through every evening.

Enough sidetrack. English study is a serious business and, if I wanted to get my money’s worth, I needed to keep paging. I’ll save you from regurgitating the 1144 page dictionary, but I do say the Practical English Handbook part was fascinating. I didn’t think it could happen, but it blows Elements Of Style out of the water. Here’s the prelude to the most concise, 45-page guide I’ve ever read:

The purpose of this Handbook is to provide a quick, easy-to-use guide to grammar, correct usage, and punctuation. It is intended for use in the business office, in the home, and in school. Secretaries, writers, teachers, and students will find it especially useful. The Handbook is divided into 25 sections or chapters each covering an important aspect or problem in English. The book is designed so that it may be used as a step-by-step complete self-study English review. But, in addition, it is a complete reference handbook for day-to-day use whenever a question arises concerning English useage or punctuation.”

I’m not going to list each chapter, as I don’t want to write an encyclopedic post full of lexiconal morphemes. But I do want to highlight the Parts Of Speech chapter, the Sentence Patterns chapter, and the Punctuation Review chapter. There were more goods packed in short spaces than I could ever imagine. Just the information on commas alone was worth my price of tuition.

Speaking of the price of tuition, you’re probably wondering how I came up with the Masters Degree in English Language figure of $117,421.65. Well, I went to the University of British Columbia’s website and looked up the details of their Masters of Arts — English Language program. Here’s a snippet from the UBC MAEL page:

The UBC English Graduate Program, one of the most vibrant and wide-ranging in Canada, has been awarding the M.A. degree since 1919. Students may earn the degree in each of two areas: English Literature and English Language. Indeed, the UBC English Department is one of the few departments in North America to offer a language program in addition to its literary programs.

The English Language program includes specializations in history and structure of language, discourse and genre analysis, and history and theory of rhetoric. Faculty members in the Language program teach and supervise research in descriptive linguistics, historical linguistics, cognitive linguistics, functional grammar, semantics, pragmatics, discourse analysis, stylistics, genre studies, and history and theory of rhetoric. Students in the English Literature program can take advantage of Language graduate courses; recent offerings include courses on reported speech and its rhetorical versatility across genres; the uses of classical rhetoric for contemporary critical practice; and cognitive approaches to the language of literature. By the same token, Language students can take advantage of the wide variety of Literature courses our department offers.”

Below this pitch is their rates. Basic tuition is $6,358.13 per year and their living-within costs are starting at $17,126.20 per year. That adds to a total yearly amount of $23,484.13. Seeing as it takes five years to earn an MA, that means getting a Masters Degree of English Language will set you back $117,421.65.

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think I really can get the equivalent of an expensive, five-year university program by reading my fifty-cent book. I have a high regard for education and highly educated people, and I truly respect their degrees. But what I did buy with my half dollar was access to a wealth of knowledge in The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language.

I don’t know if you can stumble upon this language beauty in a used book store. If you can, by all means grab it. I do know, however, that you can get copies on Amazon. They list a used hardcover for a very reasonable $15.68.

Okay, Kill Zoners. Have any of you got a copy of The New Lexicon Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language? And what English language resources do you recommend? The University of Kill Zone floor’s mic is now open.


Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner in the Province of British Columbia. Now, he’s an indie writer with an eight-part series of based-on-true-crime stories as well as many stand alones.

Garry also hosts a popular blog on his website at You can follow GarryRodgers1 on Twitter or follow him around in his boat floating on the Pacific saltwater at Vancouver Island.

Hunting The Horny Back Toad

Elton John’s God-given vocals and Bernie Taupin’s songwriting genius shine in the classic hit Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Recorded in 1973, the namesake album sold over 30 million copies and the individual song remains one of the most recognizable tunes ever. However, the lyrics might not be well known including the significance of the line, “hunting the horny back toad”.

A few nights ago my daughter, Emily, sent me an email  “Dad, you gotta listen to this. It’s Sara Bareilles covering Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. She’s one of the only few people I’ve ever heard that can do Elton John properly.”

Note: Before you read any more of this post, click on this link and listen to this beautiful voice:

Do it. Click now.

My wife, Rita, and I listened to Sara Bareilles sing Goodbye Yellow Brick Road twice and once more. Then we YouTubed a live concert version from Elton John himself. I had to agree with Emily. Sara Bareilles was just that good in her cover.

Her version earwormed me, and the words, “back to the howling old owl in the woods hunting the horny back toad” kept repeating. So I Googled the lyrics to see if I was hearing that right.

Sure enough, the chorus goes:

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

I asked Rita, “What do you think the significance of hunting the horny back toad is?”

She said, “Well, it’s figurative language. Most songwriters, probably all, use figurative language to express their idea or deliver the song’s meaning.”

“Figurative language,” I replied. “The more I do this writing thing, the more I realize how much I don’t know about figurative language. Or basic English for that matter. I just want to know what a horny back toad is and why Elton John wants to go back to whatever the howling old owl in the woods is and why the owl wants to hunt the horny back toad and what’s in it for him, the owl. Like, it all has to mean something.”

Rita smiled. She said, “You were an investigator. Figure it out.”

I said, “Yeah, though I wasn’t a very good investigator.” But I took the challenge and dug in. First thing I did was Google Horny Back Toad. I quickly found out there was no such animal. Reptile, that is. The closest creature I could find was a horn back lizard and it wasn’t technically a toad. My suspicion deepened that the horny back toad must be some kind of metaphor or simile or symbol described through figurative language.

So being the detective that I was, I went toad hunting through rabbit hole research. I learned stuff. Figurative language stuff. Stuff writers should know.

I found this quote: “Figurative language is the color we use to amplify our writing. It takes an ordinary statement and dresses it up in an evocative frock. It gently alludes to something without directly stating it. Figurative language is a way to engage your readers, guiding them through your writing with a more creative tone. Any time your writing goes beyond the actual meaning of your words, you’re using figurative language. That allows your reader to gain new insights into your work.”

I read more figurative language stuff. I’m well familiar with the basics such as metaphors, similes, and symbolism. But I wasn’t that familiar with was figurative language sub-categories, and it kept me hunting for the toad in the rabbit hole. I leaned there’s a big world out there in semantic stuff that supports figurative language, such as:

Personification — comparing animals or inanimate objects with people.

Zoomorphism — comparing people with animals, sorry, reptiles like horny back toads.

Synecdoche — exemplifying parts of an object (a subset of metaphors).

Metonymy — substituting a name to shift focus.

Clichés — overused sayings (also called dead metaphors).

Connotations — a feeling a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

Phonology — the sounds produced by language.

Syntax — the structure of words, sentences, paragraphs, and so forth.

Idioms — descriptive word groups like raining cats and dogs.

Ambiguity — words with two or more outward ways of meaning.

Polysemy — several meanings in the same word.

Homonymy — different words with same sound (to, too, two).

Hyperbole — exaggerated words and phrases.

Understatement — presenting something as being smaller, worse, or less important.

Synonyms — alike descriptors.

Antonyms — opposite descriptors.

Proverbs — short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.

Onomatopoeia — formation of a word from a sound associated with what is (cuckoo).

Alliteration — same letter/sound beginning or adjacent to or closely connected words.

Oxymoron — figure of speech which contradicts terms (military intelligence).

Paradox — seemingly absurd statement that turns out to be true.

Allusion — expression calling something to mind without explicitly mentioning it .

Pun — the pigs were a squeal (if you’ll forgive the pun).

I found more figurative examples of semantics, and I learned some things about this peculiar language called English. I’m sure this clarity will help improve my writing craft skills which is a good thing. But I came no closer to understanding how the horny back toad fell into any of these figurative speech categories.

I popped outa the rabbit hole, toadless, and thought this out. There has to be something simple here. Probably hiding in plain sight. I’ll take the song apart, bit by bit.

Okay, “yellow brick road” I get. It’s the fast life and Bernie wants Elton to leave it for a simpler life like going back to his “plough” at his “old man’s farm” whose earlier advice he should’ve taken. That’s pretty clear. So is “not signed up with you” and “I’m not a present for your friends to open” which are very powerful statements when you dwell on them.

“This boy’s too young to be singing the blues”? I think I understand that figurative reference. Same with “the dogs of society howl.” And “can’t plant me in your penthouse” really adds to the story – greatly helps to paint the big picture.

“Shoot down the plane”, “couple of vodka and tonics”, and “set you on your feet again” make things clearer yet as to what Bernie Taupin was saying through Elton John’s voice. ‘Get a replacement”, “plenty like me to be found”, “mongrels who ain’t got a penny sniffing for tidbits on the ground” — I get it all.

But what I still didn’t get was, “back to the howling old owl in the woods hunting the horny back toad.” What am I missing? Let me dissect this some more.

To start with, owls hoot. They don’t howl. And Bernie broke a main writing rule where he used the same two strong descriptors close together on two different subjects—dogs of society howling and the old owl in the woods howling. If I tried that, I’d get 1-Starred on Amazon. But he’s Bernie F’n Taupin so he can do whatever he wants with figurative speech. Sorta like what Stephen King gets away with.

Okay, we got this old owl howling and hunting in the woods. I’ll take that at face value, but it circles to the horny back toad issue. Maybe I’m reading this wrong, like there’s a punctuation error. A missing comma, maybe. It might be a horny, back toad—not a toad with protective protuberances permeating on its back at all. Maybe it’s a back toad that’s just plain horny—as in sexually excited. If the horny, back toad is a male, like most males in any species that get into the rut or swept away in breeding season or liquored-up on a road trip in an out-of-town bar, then it has only one thing on its mind which would cause it to drop its guard. The wise old owl would know this and that the horny, back toad was—in that state—an easy target to glean as a food source thereby assuring the ongoing survival of this owl’s sub-species vis-à-vis the toad’s sexually-indulgent and self-destructing demise.

I ran this by Rita. She said, “No. That’s silly. It makes no sense whatsoever within the context and elements of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road story. What’s that thing you always preach from your detective days? Occam’s razor? Where the simplest answer is usually the correct answer? Go back to basics and think it through.”

I did.

So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can’t plant me in your penthouse
I’m going back to my plough

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh, I’ve finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

Then it hit me. What if there was absolutely no meaning to a howling old owl out there in the woods bent on murdering some poor, defenseless, and aroused toad schmuck? What if Bernie Taupin simply had writer’s block and struggled with something to rhyme with “road” and the word “toad” suddenly popped into his mind? Then Bernie grabbed a random owl to go along with it, added some adjective and adverb figurative descriptors that had to work with the phonology of his lyrics and made Elton John’s voice flow?

Kill Zoners? Can things sometimes be simply this simple? What’s your figurative language interpretation of “hunting the horny back toad”?