Monthly Archives: December 2012


Merry Holidays!

Happy Christmas Santa, 1915; both “happy Christmas” and “merry Christmas” have been used historically.
Image courtesy of

’Tis the season to be happy.

Happy Holidays!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy New Year!

Happy Hanukkah!

Happy Kwanzaa!

And a Merry Christmas to all!

Merry? What’s “merry” doing at this “happy” season?

It’s an anomaly, not just now but also the rest of the year. Consider our “happy” greetings on other occasions:

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Happy 4th of…


Grammar to the Rescue

I only recently got around to reading an article by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic in October which described a very successful experiment in teaching writing at a high school on Staten Island (Lucy Ferriss discussed the controversy that followed it here on October 11). The story has an oddly conservative twist. Let me summarize a bit.

In subjects like English and history, New Dorp High School students were failing way too often on the essay parts of the Regents exams (a New York State graduation requ…



With the arrival of  @Pontifex, Pope Benedict XVI has joined the ranks of the Twitterati.

Benedict’s predecessor on the papal throne, John Paul II, introduced e-mail to the Vatican’s communications network. But tweeting—the haiku of social media—seems an intervention of a different order.

For more than a million tweeters, Benedict’s entry into the arena is the digital equivalent of the Latin exclamation Habemus papam! (“We have a pope!”)—the announcement that St. Peter’s latest successor has bee…


Left to Our (Many) Devices

Sometimes dismissed as the dullest parts of speech, nouns appear to be ready for their close-up. The language blogger Nancy Friedman recently identified a rather bizarre advertising trend of taking an adjective, implying (but not providing) a -ness or -ity suffix, and emerging with a presumably supercharged noun. Examples include such slogans as “Rethink Possible” (AT&T); “Welcome to Possible” (Mindtree); “Welcome to Fabulous” (ULTA Beauty); “111 Years of Extraordinary” (Bergdof Goodman); and “T…


Speaking of Guns

Here we are again, in the wake of a horrific mass murder 45 minutes from my home, discussing whether or not we can discuss the question of guns. Writing in The New York Times on Saturday, Nate Silver pointed out a shift in our language to which any who wish, finally, to engineer this public discourse should pay attention. Gun rights and Second Amendment, as he demonstrates, are on the rise, whereas gun control and gun violence are on the decline.

As George Lakoff has so convincingly demonstrated…


What Do You Mean, ‘We’?

I’m finally following up on a suggestion made some months back by Frank Williams at Eastern Kentucky University, to investigate the proliferation of the first-person plural in what appear to be dubious circumstances. He writes, “Decades ago I was taught not to use the first-person pronoun in serious writing, but instead to use the editorial ‘we,’ meaning ‘me’ (or maybe ‘I’), and I’ve seen the variety of ‘we’s’ that are explained on the Web. However in recent years I’ve seen what appears to be a …


I Guess ‘It’s a Thing’

A couple of weeks back, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a piece about the word random. It definitely was something I would be expected to like. After all, I am the NPR guy di tutti NPR guys. All the presets on my kitchen table radio are set to different public radio stations. On Twitter, I follow Steve Inskeep, Mike Pesca, David Folkenflik, and Don Gonyea. (I even know how to spell their names.) And I’m pretty interested in language as well.

But the piece was disappointing. It basically seemed…


Darkness Visible: Lucus a Non Lucendo

Language is conventional, not logical. But try telling that to the Greeks.

Like the rest of us, they weren’t happy to think that words are made up of arbitrary combinations of sounds or letters. Surely there must be some logic to etymology, they thought, just as we do today. Even in the absence of historical evidence, or despite it, we think that just by exercising our reason and imagination we can figure out where words came from.

In Plato’s dialogue of Cratylus, for example, Socrates feels i…


Shaken, Not Stirred

I was surprised to see a recent reference in The Economist (December 1, 2012, Page 98) to a meticulous man who prepared “a shaken-but-not-stirred martini every night at 6 p.m. on the dot.” I wonder if you can see why I was surprised.

It’s true that the phrase shaken but not stirred gets over a million Google hits, but it is not a phrase James Bond ever uttered, and most of the hits that I looked at were using the phrase in extended or metaphorical ways that had nothing to do with martinis.



Poetry in the Marketplace

Apollo, god of poetry, courtesy of Stephen Vincent

My friend Stephen Vincent, a Bay Area poet and raconteur, was in Turkey last summer and snapped a picture of the sculpture of Apollo at Nemrut just as the sun was coming up.  Beardless Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, healing and plague both, and music. And poetry. Shelley wrote (in “Hymn of Apollo”), “I am the eye with which the Universe/ Beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” At a poetry reading in San Francisco last week Stephen…