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Agency Style, for Your Eyes Only

CIA

Recently, in ways I am not at liberty to divulge, I obtained access to the CIA report-writing style guide, Style Manual and Writers Guide for Intelligence Publications. My copy is a hefty PDF, weighing in at around 25 megabytes. I will always be grateful to the brave men and women who got it to me, some at risk of their lives.

A browsable HTML version is said to exist. That would be much easier to consult than an image scan of the hard copy. If you know where there is such a version on the web,…

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Why Did the Van Gogh Brothers Write in French?

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Letter_VGM_491_-_The_Yellow_House_F1453_JH_1590
The Yellow House at Arles in letter 691, to Theo Van Gogh, September 1888. (Image courtesy of Christie’s and Wikimedia Commons.)

“The limits of my language signify the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“To have another language is to possess a second soul.” – Charlemagne

Zundert. Borinage. Paris. Arles. Auvers-sur-Oise. These names boom through art history like reports from a distant cannon. When it was too dark to paint in them, Vincent Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tr…

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Seeing Through the Gaslight

manipulate-e1462292001507A confession: Before this political season, I had not understood the term gaslighting, so eloquently explained on Friday by my colleague Ben Yagoda. I may have heard it, but only as a conniving manipulation by some politician of whom the writer didn’t approve. Not knowing its provenance, I thought maybe it had something to do with leakage from old-fashioned lighting, such that those who inhaled it sort of lost their minds.

In fact, as Ben points out, the term gaslighting originated with Patrick …

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How Old Is ‘Gaslighting’?

220px-Gaslight-1944As Anne Curzan noted Monday in her report on the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year, the winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb defined as  to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)

There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special promi…

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Decrying Dialects and Despising Speakers

TrayvonMartinHoodedA stranger I will call DL recently emailed me an odious screed pouring contempt and disgust on nonstandard dialects of English. “Speaking broken English is often a sign that the speaker is monolingual in broken English,” it said; and “Sadly, rather than seeking to help such people, some in the linguistics profession see them as savages as noble as those in the Amazon or New Guinea.”

The phrase “some in the linguistics profession” is one more anonymized reference to the possibly mythical creature…

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Tpyos vs. Mispelings: a Presidential Matter

TR-Spelling-BookMy New Year’s resolution is to write less about politics. But Orwell has hardly been the only one to note how deeply entwined are politics and language. Today I’m obsessed with the difference between typos and misspellings.

Why? Because the storm of tweets sent out by our president-elect reveals an unusual number of orthographic oddities. Let’s put aside, for the moment, the claim that these are “grammar errors,” grammar being another province from orthography. I’m interested in the subtle…

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Homeland Generation: What’s the Word?

millennials-gen-why-5-638At a time when Americans seem more conscious than ever of the separate categories to which they belong — race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political, urban or rural, occupation, native language, etc. — there has emerged a very different  way of categorizing that appears to obliterate all the others: by generations.

Much of the time we are concerned about the divisions in society. Somehow these disappear — e pluribus becomes unum — when we talk about generations. It’s a notion that was introduce…

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Words of the Year 2016

Dumpster fire copyHow do you capture 2016 in a word? That is the question we wrestled with on Friday evening at the Word of the Year vote at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society. We ended up with a compound because one word just wasn’t enough for 2016. As I have done for the past few years, I wanted to fill you in on the results in multiple categories (and there are some new ones this year) as well as highlights from our discussions of various words; the final vote counts are available on the ADS we…

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If Only I Could Tell You

It was a simple question, in an email from a nonlinguist friend: “Which is preferable, if only it were or if only it was?”

Oh dear. People choosing between these alternatives are usually struggling to avoid what they fear might be a mistake. Recalling talk of “the subjunctive” and how important it is, they want to make sure they are not to be classified among the ignorant hordes who wouldn’t know a subjunctive clause from a subduction zone.

She wanted the pure and simple truth. She wasn’t going …

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The Hand of the People

2008-02-16-unfunded_man_dateIn a moment of exasperation when a third of my first-year seminar class failed to show up for a library research session, I asked — rhetorically, I thought — in class the next day, “Who here doesn’t know what mandatory means?”

To my dismay, three hands went up.

I’ve been thinking about that moment over the past couple of months, as the debate over the incoming president’s mandate has raged. Hundreds of news sites and blogs have claimed that, having lost the popular vote by nearly three milli…