Monthly Archives: November 2012


One Rule to Ring Them All

“The end of the world will be along shortly,” a friend of mine remarked, after noticing what he thought was an erroneous whom in the hallowed pages of The New Yorker. But the example he pointed me to was an interesting one. It does not by any means imply that we are nearing the end times, though pedants may think otherwise by the time I’m done. The sentence occurred in a book review by Nathan Heller (November 19, 2012, Page 86):

[1] But what about Sir Isaac Newton, whom some contend was autis…

Hey, ‘Lady’! An Exchange


For a while, “lady” and “ladies” were a no-no. But they have shot back into prominence.

e/”>Another exchange with my 22-year-old daughter Maria.

Maria Yagoda: Just about a year ago, a friend (female, needless to say) texted me suggesting we meet up for coffee. The text started, “Hey Lady!” And then almost immediately, it seemed that Lady had become the most popular way for young women to address other young women, predominantly by electronic means. Just a couple of recent examples from my news…


An Orphan Finds a Loving Home

A looming crisis for newspaper editors has been averted. Webster’s New World Dictionary is in safe hands again.

It’s the dictionary relied on as alpha reference by the Associated Press, The New York Times, and most other American newspapers. It has been that way for a good half century, ever since it dethroned Merriam-Webster’s New International Dictionary, the 3,000-page, 10-pound “Unabridged,” from its place of honor in America’s newsrooms.

Merriam-Webster shocked editors and pundits with its …


Reading Denzel Washington in English 141

A few years ago, following a stunningly silent moment in a class discussion, my creative-writing students let me know that race was indeed a taboo topic on campus, at least in polite conversation. (To be fair, creative-writing classes have often and famously suffered from an overabundance of politeness.) My response was to begin teaching a course I called “Race, [Creative] Writing, and Difference,” the title borrowed from the Kwame Anthony Appiah-Henry Louis Gates Jr. volume. We read some litera…


No More Gatekeeping

In an earlier century, I taught at an exclusive four-year college whose English department had a bang-up reputation for producing fine writers. Elders in the department had produced a style manual that all instructors were to follow. The rule of thumb was to mark papers with the style-manual codes and not to accept final versions until all errors had been taken care of. Such error codes included “wc” for “word choice” (using “like” for “as”); “cg” for “incongruity” (“an…


Third-World Blues

Floridians waiting to vote. Credit: the Associated Press

Judging from a spate of recent references, we may soon reach the point where, to paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the third world and it is us.

This trend vigorously penetrated my consciousness via press coverage of the ridiculously long voting lines for the presidential election in many areas around the country. A Floridian who was turned away after waiting two hours to cast her vote in early voting told The Miami Herald, “This is Ame…


Farewell to the Words of Yesteryear

Now that 2012 is nearing its end, the first and last and best choice for Words of the Year will be coming soon. It’s the January 4 vote by members and friends of the American Dialect Society at the group’s annual meeting.

It’s first, because it was the first annual vote on WOTY, established back in 1990. It’s last, because it comes after all the other selections that are nowadays announced by practically every dictionary maker and language savant. And it’s best, because ADS waits till the …


Don’t Blame Your Moods on Your Language

A recent Chronicle article headed “Language Matters,” by a midwestern professor using the pseudonym Elizabeth Duncan, addressed a situation where I am pretty sure that, contrary to her view, language doesn’t matter.

Her present mood (“disappointed, sullen, self-pitying”) results, she claims, from a failure of grammar. She had been invited to apply for an endowed chair but had not ultimately received the offer. The idea that language was to blame emerged while she was listening to Patricia Willia…


Taxing Your Credulity

U.S. election 1916; green=Republican; white=Democrat

A week ago I invited readers to decorate with an effective slogan the bandwagon of a potential 2016 candidate for the U.S. presidency. For any potential candidate, because it’s too soon to know who the candidates will be, and because, like The Chronicle, I wish to remain scrupulously nonpartisan and equal opportunity.

These were my rules:

  1. No more than 10 words. Fewer is better. It’s a slogan, not a manifesto.
  2. Not used in previous presidential…

What a Game

I told myself I was going to take a break from posts about language and politics after the election, but Robert Lehrman’s recent “Draft” column in The New York Times changed my mind. Mr. Lehrman wrote of President Obama’s policies going forward,

Naturally, whether President Obama can bring people together will be determined by more than a speech. Like tennis, it depends on players across the net. For the last four years, Republicans thought they could win with another game. Will Republicans, cha…