Monthly Archives: May 2012


Naming Rights

Alas, we have little control over the language we are born into. Whatever language we happen to learn, we have little to say about the vocabulary. It’s already there, and if we want to be understood, we have to use it as others do.

This is despite the famous declaration in Through the Looking-Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words me…


The Tools in the Box

We’re still slamming around in the gale unleashed by my lighthearted survey of last week. But since results are still trickling in, I will not yet attempt any synthesis of results or responses to the very nature of the game. Instead, please consider this an extended footnote from my peculiar domain of academe, which is the doing and teaching of fiction writing.

I fully expect comments that question what the academy is doing messing around in the realm of creative writing in the first place, but …


The Case of the Extra Word

Let me tell you how Ben Yagoda and I met. Or sort of met, anyway: We’ve never seen each other, or spoken: It’s a purely Internet-based relationship, though closer and more voluntary than my relationship with Scott Reed.

In February 2003 I read a delightfully whimsical piece here in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations.” It was a cunning excuse for reciting a series of treasured family quotations: eminently quotable lines that would never appear in Bartlett’s F…


Take the Survey!

Following up on my colleague Ben Yagoda’s post on the latest battle in the –iptivist language wars, I’d like to play a game, or take a survey—call it what you will. Below is a fairly random selection of sentences from The New York Times, a publication chosen mostly because I read it every day. (Not out of elitism, but because I live not far from New York, and because it contains some of the best newspaper writing in the country.) Because these sentences were published in one of the “registers…


Forget Me, Scott Reed

Language use in early human societies, tens of thousands of years ago, was very different from what we have today. Essentially all linguistic communication was face-to-face, symmetrical, and personal, conducted within a hunter-gatherer band or tribe or clan of at most a few hundred mutually acquainted people. Humans typically talked only to other members of their group. They used unamplified voice, eye contact, and perhaps hand signs. No writing, no mass communication.

Have things ever changed. …


When Can I See My Book Cover?

My walk to work takes me down a charming 1890s street that is under constant renewal, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the restoration of several frame cottages and a couple of large Victorian beauties. Yesterday I stopped to watch some workers tear off a roof, and I wondered why it was being done several months into the rehab instead of at the beginning. Does that mean water was leaking all this time into the new interior? Maybe someone can enlighten me.

In any case, it reminded me of …



The sign that got a kid suspended last year. HMU="Hit me up," i.e., "Get back to me, if you would."

The sign that got a kid suspended last year. HMU="Hit me up," i.e., "Get back to me, if you would, through your favorite means of electronic communication."

I was all ears when this story came on public radio’s Marketplace on Friday (and not just because the correspondent has killer vocal fry). Rather, the piece confirmed to me that, when it comes to formal high-school dances in the spring, the definite article is definitely not the bomb.

Back when Archie Andrews was in the first blush of youth …


The Oldest Profession

Adam Naming the Creatures, 1847 Currier & Ives print

It has been vulgarly claimed that prostitution is the oldest profession. Wrong! It’s lexicography.

Here’s proof:

As we have learned, perhaps in elementary school, a word isn’t a word unless it’s in the dictionary.

If it’s not a word, you can’t use it.

Therefore, you need the dictionary before you can utter a word. So dictionary making has to be among the oldest of professions, if not the oldest.

This logic, incidentally, solves the question of…


Sartor Resartus

The opening of Thomas Carlyle's 1836 novel (in English "The Tailor Re-Tailored"). Language and clothing are more alike than they may at first appear to be.

I have a friend who holds a named professorship at a prestigious liberal-arts college. He owns a sharp-looking black suit, with thin lapels, that he often wears to conferences. My friend enjoys good beer. One day, in search of a six-pack, he journeyed to a nearby working-class tavern that sells a wide variety of beer. As he was paying for his…


Decline and Fall of a 4-Letter Word


No, that’s not the four-letter word in decline. It’s “ain’t.”

Unlike other proscribed four-letter words, “ain’t” isn’t obscene, blasphemous, or insulting. And yet in its heyday, not too long ago, in some circles it could provoke a reaction even stronger than the f-word.

What reaction? Well, according to one version of the jump-rope rhyme:

Don’t say ain’t or your mother will faint,
your father will fall in a bucket of paint,
your sister will cry, your brother will die,
your dog will call th…