Monthly Archives: January 2013



This is not a rant.

We’re all back to the classroom now, and for me that means back to Moodle postings. I am a fan of Moodle postings. For those who don’t use the system—Moodle is an open-access classroom software that enables any number of communications and tasks, among them the establishment of “forums” for student discussion of readings. I use these forums as springboards for class discussion, so I tend to require one Moodle forum post per week, with the reassurance to students tha…


My Dog-Whistle Problem, and Yours

Rocky Yagoda

During an interview last September with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, the Tea Party activist Amy Kremer said she doubted whether Barack Obama “loves America. … I think he is more about a global, being a, oh, what’s the word? Being more one-world, global, with, you know, other countries, and it’s not about the shining city on the hill, the greatness that has always been America, that our founding fathers were about.”

“I just never understand what any of that has to do with loving the nati…


Humor Detection Module Not Innate

I recently learned (as a side effect of a dispute with David Robson, here, here, and here) about a paper I had overlooked back in 2010. “On ‘Eskimo Words for Snow’: The Life Cycle of a Linguistic Misconception,” by Piotr Cichocki and Marcin Kilarski (Historiographia Linguistica 37, 2010, Pages 341-377), presents a detailed review of 100 years of discussion of snow terminology in Eskimoan languages, and then launches an attack on a man named Pullum who sounds like a blot on the scholarly landscap…


Reading in the Waiting Room

“The Timbertoes,” from “Highlights” magazine

My ophthalmologist’s office was crowded. The doctor was behind, there would be a real wait. The place was packed with people (including myself) in unfashionable shades, post-op wear. I found a seat then realized that I had not brought a book or a newspaper.  I was at the mercy of the magazine rack and a meager rack it was—Sports Illustrated, Highlights for Children, and a glossy publication about bat conservation.

As a child, I had never cared for Hig…


Coming to the Internet: the ‘Dictionary of American Regional English’

One of the greatest lexicographic enterprises of the 20th century has now reached its goal, with publication of the sixth and final volume by Harvard University Press. It’s the Dictionary of American Regional English, recording the copious variety of words we use in the 50 United States.

The first five volumes cover regional vocabulary A-Z with some 50,000 entries. The sixth volume is lagniappe, with maps, index, questionnaire, bibliography, and more.

If you have the dictionary at hand, you can …


The Po-Faced Are Always With Us

Quintin Hogg in his later years

The expression po-faced has achieved, as expressions sometimes do, a vogue. The following quotations all appeared in print in the last 15 months:

  • “And it is satisfying to be allowed to hoot publicly at a man who is likely to remind you of every po-faced schoolteacher who told you to stop giggling.” (New York Times theater review.)
  •  ”To me, the scurrilousness has the pasty complexion of po-faced error. The worry, the criticism, feels tacky and fatuous.” (Darin Str…

Peeking Under the Lid

My one serious attempt at memoir takes the reader back, as memoirs often do, to my adolescence and coming of age, in the late 60s and early 70s. When the manuscript went through copy-editing, a long query appeared at the point where I had written, “The next time, he brought a lid over to my dorm room.” What was this lid? the copy editor wanted to know. She had checked dictionaries and manuals of usage; she had thought of Tupperware lids, garbage-can lids, baseball caps. None of them made any…


Catfish Row

Screenshot from the film “Catfish.”


Catfish: An online impostor posing as a romantic object. To deceive by posing in such a manner. See also the 2010 film of that name.

The continuing drama of the Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the woman who did or did not exist has provided one of the stranger distractions in contemporary campus life.

A quick recap: Manti Te’o did or did not believe that someone reportedly named Lennay Kekua was or was not his online girlfriend. Whether or not she exist…


The Hacks and the Hackers

The late Aaron Swartz was a “hacker” according to many newspaper accounts. But what does that mean? Few terms are as sloppily used in contemporary journalism as the verb hack and the noun hacker. A claim of “hacking” gives scarcely a clue about what the accused person might have done.

The core of the concept seems to involve obtaining information, or accomplishing remote actions, by means of computer programming, or information systems more generally, and especially through nefarious use of devi…


Match-Grade Jargon

My recent column on the language of gun-related legislation seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist. The talking heads now refer mostly to gun violence, and Peter Baker’s recent New York Times column points out that “Gun control advocates these days generally do not use the term gun control; instead, they talk about curbing gun violence, recognizing that ‘control’ stirs opposition among legal gun owners who fear their rights being trampled.”

That same column, meanwhile, observes that the languag…