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  • 01/18/17--18:30: On Dogs Catching Vehicles
  • Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 2.12.46 PMIn Texas this month for the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, I picked up a copy of the local alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle. It turned out to be the year-in-review issue. Chosen as Quote of the Year was a sentence uttered by Matt Mackowiak, identified as a “GOP strategist,” on November 10: “Donald Trump is the dog that caught the car.”

    Not only was it a great quote, but it was already on my mind: Even before I got to Austin, I felt as if I were hearing versions of it eve...

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    Rocky the Cock-a-Tzu

    Rocky the Cock-a-Tzu


    When the satirist John Oliver returned to his HBO show from hiatus on February 12, he said the happenings of the world had left him kind of depressed. The Chicago Tribune reported:

    It’s gotten so bad, Oliver said, that when his phone buzzed with a news alert recently, he looked down and was relieved: “Oh, thank God, it’s just that Mary Tyler Moore is dead,” he recalled thinking.

    He spoke of being jealous of Eddie, the dog from Frasier, because of his state of blissful ig...

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    Ken “The Rat” Linseman

    Why don’t ballplayers have good nicknames anymore? Sure, in baseball there is Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez, in football Calvin (Megatron) Johnson, and in basketball LeBron (King) James, but that’s only three examples and the first two recently retired. On Facebook a while back, I named some of my favorites sports nicknames, and asked friends for theirs. With spring training in full swing and a daily bowl of wrong coming out of D.C., it seems a good time to present the top respon...

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  • 03/09/17--18:46: On, and In, the Bubble
  • The_Boy_in_the_Plastic_BubbleContinuing on the subject of ">sports, March Madness, aka the Big Dance, aka the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, is nearly upon us, bringing to mind the subject of basketball catch phrases, buzzwords, and clichés. Each year, a new selection of these emerges. Most subside after a few seasons, while a few — such as go-to guy or buzzer-beater or knock down (a basket) from downtown — stick around for the long haul.

    Some of these terms have an evident utility. A few years ago, announcers and pundit...

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  • 04/30/17--18:30: Who Really Said That?
  • ???????????????????????????????????????????????????For a time in my 20s, I worked as “assistant to the publisher” at Schocken Books, now part of Random House. Like anyone with that sort of glorified-secretary position, I took on a lot of tasks that weren’t part of the job description. At one point, my boss realized that a charming “book of days” desk calendar, with clever quotes and illustrations — for which he had purchased publishing rights and print-ready films from a British publisher — lacked the permissions to reproduce most ...

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  • 06/11/17--15:33: Comey, I Salute You!
  • gettyimages-632412476

    Trump pressing Comey’s flesh the day after his inauguration. Photo: Andrew Harrer via Getty Images

    Last week’s congressional testimony by James Comey was fascinating to anyone interested in politics, human relations, or, to the point, language. A monograph could probably be written about President Trump’s use of the word hope in his remark (in Comey’s recollection), “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” and in fact another Lingua Franca blogger may explore ...

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  • 06/26/17--18:30: The Half-Life of Metaphors
  • 220px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_portrait

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a m...

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    Dare Image by Ellen

    Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler


    If you read my posts, you may be familiar by now with the grand six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2013, but continuing to live beyond that date in quarterly updates on the internet.

    Now DARE  has come to life in another way. It’s not just in writing that the dictionary tells us about the different ways we talk in this vast country. DARE  is speaking up!

    Now we can hear the recorded voices of some 1,800 people in 1,...

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  • 08/15/17--18:30: Of Cans and Cabooses
  • Tyler Silvest, via Flicker

    On Monday, a  Colorado jury found that a Denver disc jockey had in fact committed assault and battery against Taylor Swift during a pre-concert photo session in 2013. Some dirtbags like the DJ apparently feel that celebrities can be groped — a form of sexual assault — with impunity, and the main takeaway of the trial was the good news that the dirtbag in this case could not.

    The second takeaway is that mainstream journalism apparently does not possess an adequate term ...

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  • 08/23/17--18:30: DIY Digital Humanities
  • The digital humanities are known for major-infrastructure projects, such as data-crunching the contents of capacious corpora and charting the movement of vast numbers of people and ideas over space and time. An example picked from many is Martin Grandjean’s pleasingly meta visualization of digital-humanities Twitter users, below.

    Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 1.20.32 PM

    Grandjean parses: “This graph consists of 1,434 nodes connected by 137,061 directed edges, each symbolizing a user ‘following’ another on Twitter.” The data, he says, ...

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  • 08/28/17--18:30: Totality
  • T99-2-0405w

    The word totally has grown so overused that I was struck, last week, by the power of its near cousin, totality, describing the two or three minutes, along the arc of the much-heralded solar eclipse, when the sun was blanked out except for its flaming (and dangerous to look at) corona. At first I thought the media had invented the term. But no, it has been in the astronomy lexicon for 185 years to indicate “the moment or duration of total obscuration of the sun or moon during an eclipse.”

    When t...

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    Columbus monument in Barcelona, with helicopter bearing symbol of Catalonia (Photo by Carles Ribas, El País)

    The violence surrounding the Catalan independence referendum on October 1 has put Spanish democracy under a microscope. Some scholars believe Monday’s holiday, which the United States calls Columbus Day and some localities celebrate as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, has an implicit link to the Catalan independence struggle, one that casts some doubt on the national origins of Chris...

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  • 10/17/17--18:30: The National Anthem and Me
  • hith-star-spangled-banner-key-mchenry-E

    It’s been years, now, since I stood up when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played. Mine has not been a protest akin to the controversial kneeling that’s got right-wing pundits’ knickers in a twist. Colin Kaepernick and the hundreds who have followed his examples are using the occasion specifically to call attention to the ways in which police brutality against black men is evidence that our country is falling far short of its goals. Fair enough, in my view. My own actions have attracte...

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  • 11/06/17--18:48: Do Courtesy Titles Matter?
  • Respect
    I like to think I’m not fussy about honorifics. I don’t tell my undergraduate students how to address me. The current convention seems to be Professor X, though friends who teach at research universities report that they are often addressed as Dr. X, and frequently undergraduates used to boarding schools will default to Ms. or Mr. X. One colleague, whose last name is difficult to pronounce, goes by Dr. Dan, which students seem to love. Once students have graduated, I usually encourage them to s...

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    Nothing to See 15a34a2fc727c8
    These quotes all appeared in the last week:

    • “Nothing to see here: Man casually puts on deodorant; officers find meth in deodorant.” –Headline in Northwest Florida Daily News.
    • “A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said the discharge wasn’t serious enough to report to the feds and did not pose a threat to public health. In other words, move along. Nothing to see here.” –Chicago Tribune, on a chromium spill in Lake Michigan.
    • “This time around, Mayak [nuclear plant] authorities have similarly denied being res...

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  • 12/12/17--14:56: Splendor in the Tall Grass
  • long grass
    Knowing my interest in British words and expressions crossing to the United States, Katherine Connor Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press, tweeted me a quote from a November 30 New York Times article about a potential state visit of Donald Trump to Britain: “Even before the latest uproar, there was speculation that the state visit was being pushed into the long grass.” She commented, “First time I recall seeing this BrE soccer metaphor (it’s usually ‘kick’) ...

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  • 01/02/18--15:33: Who You Gonna Call?
  • Brody-Ghost-Story

    How old am I? This old: I never heard the term ghosting before I read “Cat Person,” the New Yorker story that went viral in early December.

    (Let us pause a moment here, to appreciate the latter part of that sentence. A piece of literary fiction published in the lone temple of literary fiction has gone viral, with people noting that perhaps fiction alone can begin to comprehend the morass we find ourselves in when it comes to dysfunctional sexual relationships. As we literary-fiction writers lik...

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  • 01/10/18--14:05: The Joy of Predictive Text


    The writer John Kelly recently tweeted:

    Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 1.37.22 PM

    For those not familiar with the term, here’s a definition of predictive text courtesy of “an input technology that facilitates typing on a mobile device by suggesting words the end user may wish to insert in a text field.” The most useful function, in my experience, is its suggestions once you’ve started writing a word. For example:


    I can select going or good by tapping on one of those choices, or I can ignore them and type someth...

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  • 02/13/18--16:48: Hearts and Ashes
  • saint_valentine

    Emperor Claudius II slaying Valentine, from a copy of Speculum Historiale, Vincent of Beauvais, c. 1335, Bibliothèque nationale de France

    February 14, 2018, brings about the rare concatenation of two extreme perspectives on human life. One is love, on Valentine’s Day; the other is death, on Ash Wednesday. Both are the same day this year. And both are courtesy of the early Roman Catholic church, though the former has become secular, while the latter remains religious. It’s not hard to imagine wh...

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  • 02/15/18--14:21: The Last Time I Saw Paris
  • George Whitman with his daughter, Sylvia (named for Sylvia Beach)

    Long ago, in a world preceding the European Union, the euro, and the tsunami of American students who go to Paris every semester for classes ranging from “Paris, Cinema City” to “French Political Life,” I was a pastry salesgirl in Versailles. I spent most of my days off in Paris, and when I needed a hit of American culture. I skipped over to Shakespeare and Company, the little bookstore facing Notre-Dame from the Left Bank.

    Back t...

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