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  • 11/30/15--18:12: Books and Mortar
  • A memorable (to me) segment on the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was “Share a Little Tea with Goldie,” in which a wide-eyed hippie, played by Leigh French, found various things to say “Oh, wow” about. I have been thinking about one particular episode in which Goldie excitedly demonstrated to viewers an invention she’d come up with. She took out her contact lenses, then wrapped wire around them in such a way that the wire curled around her ears and the lenses were in front of her eyes. She ha...

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  • 12/17/15--18:20: Sing We
  • carol_1541986cI grew up singing carols, and I am still singing them, these days in an interfaith chorus that gives an annual holiday concert with audience participation. Returning to the songs of one’s youth is always a sentimental experience. But with carols, particularly, I recall simultaneously relishing the rich language in these little ditties and feeling confused by what I came to understand as inverted syntax.

    Poetry, and poetic language, often move the parts of a sentence into places different from or...

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  • 01/11/16--21:01: Our National Anthimeria
  • 6a00d8341c4f9453ef01a73d6f4c92970dThanks, Nancy Friedman. Some time ago, I read a blog post by the naming consultant about the trend of anthimeria in advertising — that is, using a word as a different part of speech than normal, as in Turner Classic Movies’ “Let’s Movie” and Nutella’s “Spread the Happy.” (Movie, a noun, is being used as a verb, and happy, an adjective, as a noun.)  Friedman has collected examples for a long time, and a couple of months ago I started following her lead.

    All I can say is, enough already. Ads using...

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  • 01/26/16--18:53: Them, Themself, and They
  • stan carey conspiracy keanu reeves meme - singular themself as a descriptivist plotThe Lingua Franca bloggers Allen Metcalf and Anne Curzan have written about the American Dialect Society’s laudable selection of singular they as Word of the Year. But they, like most commenting on the topic, have not addressed a pressing and, to a large extent unresolved, issue: the word’s corresponding “emphatic and reflexive pronoun” (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary).

    Dennis Baron and others have shown that they has been used to refer to singular nouns for centuries; the emphati...

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  • 01/31/16--15:24: Oh, Commas
  • As the self-appointed watcher of commas, known to some (OK, known to myself) as The Comma Maven, I naturally was concerned when I saw the provisional title of my friend Craig Pittman’s forthcoming book about the weirdness of Florida. The book grew out of the tweets that Pittman (a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times) has been putting out for some time, like this:


    Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 9.40.00 PM

    And this:

    Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 9.39.06 PM


    (Craig is not connected with the person or persons who send out tweets like the following under the handle @_FloridaMan:


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  • 02/09/16--17:50: Write if You Get Work
  • Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as the cranberry grower Ward Smith

    Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as cranberry grower Ward Smith

    “If they like Bob and Ray, they’re OK.”

    —David Letterman, on how to tell if someone has a good sense of humor.

    Comedy, in addition to being hard, ages faster than unpasteurized milk. No one is a greater admirer of the best comic writers and performers of the past than I, yet I experience their work only with admiration, almost never with actual laughter. The one consistent exception is when I listen to recordings of Bob and R...

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    EUJust when you need maximally careful use of the uniquely human gift of language, everything goes to hell and people start throwing clichés around like ninja stars. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has just called a referendum for June 23 in which the electorate will address this question:

    Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

    And immediately everything is slogans and fearmongering and soundbites and similes.

    The wording of the questi...

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  • 03/01/16--18:19: Who You Calling Phobic?
  • LiliElbe In Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony, the presenter J.K. Simmons described The Danish Girl as a film about someone who had undergone “gender-confirmation surgery.” I immediately recognized the phrase — which I wasn’t aware of encountering before — as a foot soldier in a political war. That is, Simmons’s formulation implicitly cast aside other terms for the same thing, such as “gender-reassignment surgery” or the old-fashioned “sex-change operation,” so as to advance a point of view. As a plastic s...

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  • 03/30/16--18:44: ‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare
  • “It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

    He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

    “The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di...

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  • 04/05/16--18:10: Don’t Speak!
  • In the funniest scene in Woody Allen’s last funny movie, Bullets Over Broadway (1994), the aspiring playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) tries to communicate his feelings to the stage diva Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest).

    Throughout history, at various moments and by various people, not speaking has been recognized as an appropriate and perhaps necessary course of action. After being raped at the age of 8, Maya Angelou was mute for almost five years. In Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the chi...

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    If [the Oklahoma City Thunder are] clicking on all cylinders, I give them a punter’s chance obviously to put the kind of firepower out on the floor to go head to head with the [Golden State] Warriors four quarters.

    —Jalen Rose, quoted in The New York Times, April 15, 2016

    As I have mentioned here before, I am the sole owner and proprietor of Not One-Off Britishisms (NOOBs), a blog devoted to charting British expressions that have become popular in the United States. And when I read the quote by ...

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    I commented here a few months ago on the status of English as a planetwide communication medium and some aspects of the “undeserved good luck” that got it that unlikely status. “The race for global language has been run,” I said, “and like it or not, we have a winner” (see this Lingua Franca post). English continues to expand its reach, and spreads at an increasing rate; many have noted, for example, that the European Union is moving in the direction of conducting most of its business in English...

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  • 05/12/16--18:50: The Versatile Octothorpe
  • octothorpeNot being a tweeter, I rarely think about the octothorpe, now known more commonly as a hashtag. I do mark students’ papers by hand, though, and one thing I tend to insert — when no one is spelled as one word, or when a fictional story leaps from one block of time or point of view to another — is a mark for space, indicated by #. Then, just yesterday, I had to submit a prescription number over to the phone to my local pharmacy and was instructed to press pound when I was done.

    Hashtag. Pound sign...

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  • 05/15/16--18:00: Sad!
  • It is no news that the person I call the presumptuous Republican nominee for president likes to use exclamation points in his tweets. Take a look at a tranche of his Twitter feed:

    Screen Shot 2016-05-13 at 9.44.05 AM

    One might think this would be common punctuation on Twitter. One would be mistaken. Of the 50 most recent non-Trump tweets in my feed, only two contained exclamation points. (More commonly, a sort of humorous emphasis is added through ALL CAPS.) But for Trump, this is not only a trademark bit of Twitter punctuation; h...

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  • 06/08/16--18:10: Just Like a Woman
  • naked-cartwheelOn occasional Thursday evenings I participate in a figure-drawing circle. Artists of all abilities sit with their easels in front of them and a nude model in the center, who poses first in short stints, then in a “long pose” broken by five-minute breaks. A month or so ago, a new model, very young, intriguing-looking and flexible, posed for us. She had short hair tinged blue (as was her pubic hair), multiply pierced earlobes, a petite figure. There was something different about the way she he...

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    Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 5.23.28 PMKiel, Germany — The Kieler Woche is a huge weeklong festival of art, music, culture, theater, and maritime recreational events, held on the western shore of a fjord, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, that opens to the Baltic. (One tends to think of Germany as being mostly surrounded by land boundaries, but up here it has both an east coast and a west coast, from sea to shining sea.)

    My room on the waterfront has a panoramic view of yacht races, processions of tall-masted “windjammer” sailing s...

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    static.playbill.comI recently heard that a gay acquaintance of mine has gotten divorced. I mention his sexual orientation certainly not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s relevant to the matter of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls “two-part back-formed verbs,” aka 2pbfVs. Zwicky has been cataloguing examples of these, at Language Log and on his own website, since 2008, when he wrote about the verb form gay marry, which he had just encountered in a quote on someone else’s blog: “I did an in...

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  • 07/10/16--14:41: The Safe Space
  • one-hundred-years-of-solitude-coverIt has become a recurrent motif in academic parlance in the United States to talk about security, not as a discipline but in existential terms. This isn’t surprising given the superabundance of bloodshed today. Campus is frequently called a “safe space.” Violence — physical, emotional, and verbal — has no place in it.

    The premise behind this concept is sound, though it sometimes verges on sanctimony. It envisions the classroom as Robinson Crusoe’s island, where it is possible to start from scrat...

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  • 08/14/16--15:49: Brit Thesps Nail Yank Lingo
  • laurie

    Hugh Laurie can talk the talk.

    The American characters in Genius — screening earlier this summer in art-house cinemas everywhere — are played by the following actors.

    Thomas Wolfe: Jude Law (English)

    Maxwell Perkins: Colin Firth (English)

    Aline Bernstein: Nicole Kidman (Australian)

    Ernest Hemingway: Dominic West (English)

    F. Scott Fitzgerald: Guy Pearce (Australian)

    Zelda Fitzgerald: Vanessa Kirby (English)

    I didn’t see the film, but I don’t have to in order to know the American accents are ...

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    Fickr photo courtesy of Kathleen McDonald

    M22 is not just another pretty face. In fact, not only is it not a face, it isn’t particularly pretty, unless you think a plain black-and-white road sign with letter M and number 22 on a white diamond on a black background can be pretty. But it stands for all that is beautiful at the west edge of the Michigan mitten. And that designation and design, curiously enough, are private property — as you will discover if you try to sell a T-shirt imprinted ...

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