Monthly Archives: August 2012


‘Thank You for the Light’

The August 6, 2012, issue of The New Yorker carried a charming new short story about a travelling salesperson who wants a cigarette but whose sales visits turn out to be nonsmoking.

The author is a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the “Contributors” column says it was written in 1936. If we didn’t recognize the name of the author or know the date of composition, could we tell by language alone that it was written three-quarters of a century ago?

The salesperson is “a pretty, somewhat faded wom…


Chinglish: Caught in the Crossfire

This summer, while traveling in China, I delivered a lecture at the Changshu Institute of Technology to an audience of students, language teachers, and translators. Speaking (through an interpreter) about the challenges of translators who serve as bridges between two languages, I noted that they are inevitably “traitors” to each. In the question-and-answer session that followed, a professor stood up and passionately attacked me for demeaning the status of translators in Chinese society.

I soon l…


Rules That Eat Your Brain

Language Log discussions of what is categorized there as “prescriptive poppycock” often refer to zombie rules: Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on. The worst thing about zombie rules, I believe, is not the pomposity of those advocating them, or the time-wasting character of the associated gotcha games, but the way they actually make people’s writing worse. They promote insecurity, and nervous people worrying about their language write worse than relaxed people enjoying their language. Let me…


Of All Time! Honest!

It might have begun with that favorite question: “Who was the worst person of all time?” Many a late-night debate has raged over whether Mao or Stalin or Hitler wins that prize. (I recall Innocent III being once proposed on the grounds of launching the Fourth Crusade.) It was all a bit childish, but at least there was a sense of historical sweep. The best person of all time isn’t nearly as interesting a question, but history is filled with terrible people, and one forgets them at one’s p…


The ‘Awkward’ Age

“Awkward turtle” gesture

I admit, I’m a little slow on the cultural uptake. Only just this morning did Spanx complete its frontal assault on my consciousness, thanks to the one-two punch of hearing Robert Pattinson reference the wildly popular slimming undergarment during a Jon Stewart interview a couple of days ago and then reading about it in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning.

It’s the same with words. I recently commented to my 21-year-old daughter, Maria, that the word awkward really se…


Say It Ain’t So, Joe

Vice President Biden, choosing the vernacular

In which I cogitate on the ways in which racial language enters the 2012 presidential campaigns through a side door and note the prevailing color patterns and relations in popular media.

Cooking recently for a dinner party and listening to NPR, I heard several times Joe Biden make his now-famous “chains” remark.  The vice president, speaking in Danville, Va., said Governor Romney had indicated that he would unleash the big banks and “unchain W…


Bombs Away

“This is an ex-parrot.” Monty Python’s classic sketch is a trove of death euphemisms.

Word came last week that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary will from this moment on include the phrase f-bomb (along with such other newcomers as sexting, flexitarian, energy drink, aha moment, earworm, man cave, brain cramp, and life coach).

As Leanne Italie, who wrote an Associated Press article about the additions, observed, “It’s about freakin’ time.”

Merriam-Webster’s first citation of f-bomb dates f…


Lingua Franca’s Winning Limerick, a Labor of Love

Two weeks ago I announced a contest for the best new original limerick on language. Easy to ask, hard to do.

A limerick is one of the most demanding of verse forms. It gallops along in a tight circle, knocking out rhymes right and left (well, actually, just right). It demands nimble anapestic feet. Ideally it has two sets of rhymes precisely placed in a mere 39 syllables.

The form is difficult enough; the content is worse. A limerick needs to be both majestic and playful, straightforward and iro…


Chewing Some Olde Fat

I write during the summers at a house overlooking Excalibur Lake, just off Sir Walter Court and Lady of the Lake Circle. We pick up our milk at the Sherwood Shoppe. You get the idea. So it felt apropos to receive an e-mail from my Pakistani friend Aslam Khan detailing in part what he referred to as “some olde English history”:

  • There is an old Hotel/Pub in Marble Arch, London, which used to have a gallows adjacent to it. Prisoners were taken to the gallows (after a fair trial of course), to b…

Even That Would Be a Grammar

Sometimes when I admit to being a grammarian, and to having the grammatical structure of Standard English as a research interest, people will ask me how that could possibly be a job. We all know the rules, don’t we? Mustn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction; shouldn’t split infinitives; can’t end a sentence with a preposition (though we all do! ha! ha!); have to put apostrophes in certain places: What’s to study?

So I try to explain that it’s an empirical enterprise to discover the subtle and …