Monthly Archives: January 2013


Jack Lew’s Signature

When President Obama put forward the name of Jack Lew to be the next secretary of the Treasury, there were two immediate reactions. First was puzzlement and the homophonic query “Lew who?” Then came the visual thrill ride that Mr. Lew calls his signature.

Even the President wryly observed that if Mr. Lew is approved for the post, the new Treasury secretary would be required to have at least one decipherable letter amid the sequence of tumbling o’s. Fair enough. They look like clowns spilling o…


The Most Demanding Science: Homage to Eric Hamp

“Historical linguistics is the most advanced and demanding known human science.”

That bold statement comes in the latest issue of the amazing journal Comments on Etymology. It’s not a publication you’ll find at your nearest newsstand, probably not even at your nearest university library, so I’ll explain here. (See note at end for information on the journal.)

What makes the claim about historic linguistics plausible is the person who made it: Eric P. Hamp. He holds the title Robert Maynard Hutchi…


O Brother, Whose Art Thou?

The “Morning Joe” hosts: (from left) Joe, Mika, and Willie

In my household, “appointment television” refers to the the hour of the morning when my wife, Gigi, having returned from the gym and walked the dog, sits down to watch the DVRed first half-hour of Morning Joe before heading off to work. When the MSNBC political chat-fest yields anything notable, she’ll relay it to me. That was what happened one day last week, when Gigi told me that, during a discussion of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secr…


Being an Adjective

The study of English syntax has a history going back to the late 17th century. Some fine chefs have worked in the grammatical kitchen since then; but it is a thin and adulterated broth that gets served up today, spoiled by too many cooks.

The traditional presentation of the principles of English grammar—rooted in a confused kind of naïve metaphysics, as I noted in “Being a Noun”—was in need of a radical revision long before Darwin’s era. But while biology since 1859 has seen a conceptual revolut…


Repurposing Anthimeria

Elaine: “He recycled this gift. … He’s a regifter!”

When last we met, I mentioned some current examples of functional shifting, or anthimeria, especially adjective-to-noun (AT&T’s slogan “Rethink Possible”) and verb-to-noun (referring to someone as a good “hire”). I didn’t get into two notorious noun-to-adjectives, fun and cliché. Nor will I today. My theme, rather, is what seems to me the most popular recent switch, noun-to-verb.

Innumerable such transformations have taken place over the histor…


Stopping to Consider Language Acquisition

As is my wont, when I began reading Interpreting Imperatives by Magdalena Kaufmann (now at the University of Connecticut) I started with a part that many would probably skip: the preface. There are all sorts of things to be learned from a preface to a book in one’s own field. The author is the former Magdalena Schwager, who did her Ph.D. at Frankfurt and moved on to Göttingen, and is now married to Stefan Kaufmann of Northwestern. One of her mentors was Ede Zimmermann. And then suddenly I stoppe…


A Little Frau With Your Bonus?

O politics, you are the gift that keeps on giving, and maybe especially to those who keep an eye out for language.

Last month the German race for Chancellor took an unexpected linguistic turn. The candidate Peer Steinbrück complained that Chancellor Merkel, who is running for reelection, enjoyed a Frauenbonus.

By deploying the term Frauenbonus,  Steinbrück means (I assume)  that Merkel has an advantage in being a woman since a) women would vote for her because she is one of them, and b) since …


Upping the Ante

The origin of a cliché is a bottomless pit on a dark and stormy night, but I was tickled by The New York Times’s recent addition to the trove of lore concerning the whole nine yards. This one is apparently the deepest of all secrets, the windingest of all labyrinths. Yards, after all, can refer to two-dimensional measure (yards of cloth); three-dimensional measure (yards of concrete); playing fields (baseball yards); a spar on a sailing mast; and degree of achievement (gaining yards in football)…


The #Word of the Year: #Hashtag

The American Dialect Society has done it again.

On Friday, members and friends, meeting in Boston, chose the Word of the Year for 2012.

Imagine a crowd of more than 250 linguists and friends, standing-room only, in a hotel ballroom.

Members of the American Dialect Society and the Linguistic Society of America, and friends.

Three screens to show voting results.

List of nominees in eight categories distributed to the audience. Four nominees for each category:

Most Useful, Most Creative, Most Unnec…


Moving Around, Needlessly or Not

In her anti-automobile screed of a few years ago, Katie Alvord wrote, “Coming after railroads, cars acquired what Wolfgang Sachs calls ‘a restorative significance’ for the rich. The train, he writes, threatened the wealthy’s sense of place and power: ‘What the common people welcomed as a democratic advance, individuals of more privileged position greeted with a snort.’ Indeed, the Duke of Wellington expressed disapproval of railroads in 1855, saying, ‘They only encourage common people to move ar…