Monthly Archives: October 2012



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Frankenstorm, they called it: a huge, ugly, shambling monster of a storm formed by unnatural melding of a hurricane from the southeast and a monstrous cold-air mass oozing down from the north. In the week of Hallowe’en this unholy thing staggered toward us, and we fled like frightened villagers.

As Frankenstorm approached, health and safety officers canceled classes and closed campuses. Brown University was closed on Monday, and during that afternoon a horror-film storm beg…


The Unnameable


The tradition of unsayable words or things is a long one. In Judaism, you cannot utter the name of God. In Harry Potter, you cannot utter the name Voldemort. In my household, you cannot utter the fact that my dog is not a human.

Nationally, the number of things that can’t be said appears to be growing, judging by the popularity in the last couple of decades of the tiresome locutions spawned by the f-word and the n-word. (They are so plentiful that they need a moniker; I propose “the fi…


Trick or Treat!

It’s almost the eve of All Saints’ Day, or as we call it, Halloween, when children throughout the United States ring doorbells in search of candy, raising the ancient medieval cry, “Trick or treat!”

Just one thing is wrong with that statement. “Trick or treat!” is not ancient. It’s not medieval. It’s not even early modern. “Trick or treat!” was brand new in the 20th century.

And it’s not European either. “Trick or treat!” was born and raised in North America.

Its exact origin is, for now, unknow…


Epithet of the Moment

I appear before you today to consider the inescapable epithet of the moment, at least in the realm of the youthful demotic. You cannot read the Internet, turn on Comedy Central, or eavesdrop in the student union without hearing it.

I refer, of course, to douchey, as well as to the nouns from which it sprang, douchebag and douche.

The “douchey boyfriend” meme


Last year saw the publication of The Rogers & Littleton Guide to America’s Douchiest Colleges. (Winner: Cornell.) A comparatively…


How to Talk Presidential

 A president of the United States has to have two voices: dignified and down to earth.

Blame it on George Washington. And on Andrew Jackson. If you want to sound presidential, you need at least two styles of speaking.

Washington came first. At a time when nearly every country in the Western world was led by a hereditary ruler, the brand-new American republic was taking the bold step of doing without a monarch. Could an untitled citizen equal the majesty of kings and emperors?

Washington could. T…


Dis and Dat

I’ve just finished grading my first set of persuasive essays this term. True to form, about two-thirds of them ran into trouble, or exposed the trouble into which they’d run, with an unreferenced demonstrative pronoun, usually “this.” A quick sampling, with identifying markers removed:

  1. Because Character A, who loves him, is not aware of her own potential, she is more desirable to Character B who is able to use this to his own benefit.
  2. Critic X’s ideas are particularly applicable when examinin…

Queen Charlotte Meets Haida Gwaii

Queen Charlotte

In Prince George, British Columbia, poetry readings are raucous and well-attended.  Five hundred miles north of Vancouver, P.G. is a first giant step on the way to the Alaska Highway or to the coast at Prince Rupert, or to the Peace River country.  You never know where poetry’s going to find a place to flourish. I read at the College of New Caledonia and the next night Sarah de Leeuw read at Books & Co.; we’d not met before but we came to each other’s events and, at the books…


Illegal Immigrants and Marine Biologists

Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and pro-immigrant activist, was here at Brown University last week giving a lecture. In 2011 he outed himself as a person who (as he discovered during his teenage years) immigrated from the Philippines without obtaining the legal right to remain. He has been campaigning to get news organizations to ditch the phrase illegal immigrant. He thinks it is inaccurate, improper, and demeaning. The putative point (discussed by Lawrence Downes here) is …


What Words to Say, What Sort of Person to Be

Mark Bauerlein, in a recent post on our sister blog The Conversation, made an interesting remark about a couple of students who defended their use of a certain obscene expletive in class:

I was astonished to hear two of the brighter students in the class arguing for its use as a singularly expressive token. When I raised the issue of propriety, they claimed that any stigma was just a generational thing, and that when their generation matures, the F-word and other expletives will have normal stat…


Albert in a Can, Women in Binders

The joke is an old one.

Boy on telephone: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”

Tobacconist: “Yes, we do.”

Boy: “Well, you’d better let him out before he suffocates!”

Readers of Lingua Franca will recall that Albert was a noble gentleman married to the queen of England. Fewer readers might know that Prince Albert is a popular brand of tobacco. Fewer still might recognize the designation tobacconist (purveyor of an addictive herb), a professional term now as rare as cooper or  carter or candlesti…