Monthly Archives: February 2012


‘Downton’ Grrrr

You may just possibly know that there’s currently a popular program on the telly called Downton Abbey. If you follow language blogs and language gossip (yes, there is such a thing), you will probably be equally aware of the current kerfuffle involving verbal anachronisms on the show.

The rumblings started last fall with an article in the British broadsheet The Telegraph, complaining that Downton characters used such not-yet-coined (in the 1916-20 period in which the action takes place) words and…


Literary Judgment Marred by Dumb Grammar Myth

The challenge issued by Canada Writes was: “In 100 words or less, write a true story that involves someone in your life, and use that person’s name in your story. It could be a family member, a friend, a teacher, anyone—but the person must still be living.”

The chosen judge was JJ Lee, who writes about fashion and art in Vancouver. The winner was a story by Jennifer Goddard, as tight and gripping as a 100-word story could be. No quarrels there. But the runner-up, by Caro Rolando, was also ter…


Another Linguist, Another Murder, Part II

Thomas E. Murray, a prolific and wide-ranging scholar of American English, now resides in prison in Kansas, with a sentence of 25 years to life for the murder of his wife. Was there anything in his linguistic history that hinted he would come to such an end?

In 2002 he co-authored an article for American Speech, journal of the American Dialect Society, that at first glance made him seem like anything but a cold-blooded killer. The article explains:

“Our first attestation for like + V-en occurred…


Another Linguist, Another Murder, Part I

No, he wasn’t hanged. He was merely sentenced to spend time in prison, 25 years to life. He’s there now, in Kansas’ El Dorado Correctional Facility.

Thomas E. Murray photograph by Thad Allender

And the evidence against him was merely circumstantial.

But in that way, and in the fact of a wife murdered in a bloody assault, Thomas E. Murray followed in at least a few of the footsteps of his notorious 19th-century linguistic precursor, Edward H. Rulloff.

I wrote about Rulloff a few weeks ago, drawin…


The Looking-Glass vs. Mirror War: Language and Class

Quick: are these "false teeth" or "dentures"?

In 1954, the British linguist Alan Ross published “Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English” in a Finnish journal called Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. It was an unlikely starting place for such an influential article. It led to a flurry of pieces in the British press, many of them collected in a 1956 volume called Noblesse Oblige, edited by Nancy Mitford. But the truly influential thing was Ross’s terminology, specifically U (which he used…


In Defense of Browsing

Like any groveling author, I am seeking a casual way to insert into this post the news that my new novel, The Lost Daughter, is out this week from Berkley Books. There. That was subtle, right?

Actually, the subtle thing would have been to mention the besieged bookseller, Barnes & Noble. B&N? Surely I jest. But no—since swallowing up most of our favorite independent bookstores and witnessing the demise of its rival, Borders, B&N is the last brick-and-mortar bulwark against the ravenous Amazon and…


Submitting Digital Art for Publication: Advice From an Art Director

If your book or journal article has scanned illustrations—whether photographs, charts, or drawings—your publisher is going to require that they meet a certain standard. Something writers don’t always realize is that art that works perfectly well as an e-mail attachment or an online posting may flunk the test for print publication.

Jill Shimabukuro, director of design and production at the University of Chicago Press, kindly agreed to answer some questions for Lingua Franca about the most common …


Ferment and Befuddlement

A century ago the general study of language was a humanities discipline. The preparation needed was some experience in Latin and Greek, or modern languages and literatures, and analytical ability. Perhaps a little philosophy. Things are different today. Around my home department in the last week the characteristically diverse talks about language presupposed chunks of algebra, automata theory, biology, computation, ethology, information theory, lexicography, logic, philosophy, psychology, and…


Losing Is for Losers: It’s Easier Than Ever to Back Up Your Work

Backing up computer files is like flossing—we know we should do it every day, but even though it’s fast and easy, we procrastinate. It’s easy to skip it “just once.” Many of us have lost work that wasn’t backed up: We save an old version over the new one; our laptop is stolen along with the backup thumb drive plugged into it; we forget to save in the first place, and just when we’re getting ready to, one of the kids—the one who plays bass in a rock band—plugs his 200-watt ampli…


Legislating Language and Truth

The 1897 session of the Indiana General Assembly passed “A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth.” It asserted that (i) the ratio of the chord and arc of a 90-degree segment of a circle was 7/8; (ii) the ratio of said chord to the circle’s diameter (hence to the diagonal of a square inscribed in the circle) was 7/10; and (iii) the ratio of the diameter to the circumference was (5/4)/4. Pi must be equal to 3.2 for these things to be true. Yet the bill nearly made it through comm…