Monthly Archives: February 2013


Loving Words

Lovers of language, Valentine’s can be your day too. A day to praise words, not to bury them. A day to sound our barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Maybe we could take one day, this day of love, to celebrate the words we love. Here are some of mine:

OK, America’s greatest, most democratic, and most useful word, born of a humble joke in a Boston newspaper some 174 years ago.

jazz, America’s next greatest word, born almost exactly a century ago on the baseball fields of California, and w…



A reader recently suggested a blog post about what he called “creative abbrevs,” the acronym imo (“in my opinion”) being his example. Varieties of texting shorthand live and die as fast as mayflies, but the comment did get me thinking about anacronyms. For the uninitiated, an anacronym is an acronym whose provenance has been lost to the shifting sands of language. They are to be distinguished from acronyms per se, but also from backronyms and initializations—all of which distinctions were …


My Lunch With Mr. Mitchell

The New Yorker‘s anniversary issue (Simon Greiner’s cover of a tattooed Williamsburg hipster as Eustace Tilley is at left) has a lot of delights in it. Ian Frazier on Staten Island! Susan Orlean on Walmart art! Fiction by Zadie Smith! Emily Nussbaum on Girls! Poems by Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin! Cartoons by Jack Ziegler and Edward Koren! But the wonder of wonders is a memoir by the late Joseph Mitchell called “Street Life.” (The magazine has made the full text available only to subscribers, b…


Revision, Respect, and Etymological Cleansing

I’m in Seattle this week, to give a Jesse and John Danz lecture at the University of Washington. My topic is the scandal of English grammar teaching, and my thesis is that the language is basically in good shape—the scandal is the descriptive blunders of the bumbling grammar gurus and the myth-repeating usage snobs.

I don’t think English needs repair. But here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, the Washington state legislature thinks otherwise. Lawmakers are working on a gender-neutral language…


A Swang and a Miss

Count Basie

My new book, How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them, was published Tuesday. (Pause for collective “Yay!” or “Yippee!”  And note to self: Look into increased nonironic or semi-ironic use of yay and yippee for possible future Lingua Franca post.)

The book is to a pretty large extent based on my 20 years teaching advanced writing and journalism classes at the University of Delaware—and specifically, on the fairly small set of writing woe…


Mother Hubbard’s Bone, Alexander Pope’s Tea

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), from crayon drawing by W. Hoare in the National Portrait Gallery, London

Poetry has its uses, even if your attitude toward poetry is like Hotspur’s in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1:

I had rather hear a brazen canstick turned,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axletree,
And that would set my teeth nothing an edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry.
’Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

But if you shuffle through the landscape of earlier poetry, you can find fossils t…


Publishers in Transition (and the Readers Who Love Them)

This morning my Twitter feed led off with this message from RandomDigital, the electronic arm of the august publishing firm Random House:

@RandomDigital: Please support media companies in transition by buying a physical copy, or subscribing.


Lo, how the mighty have tweeted.

I felt as if I had just passed a pet store with a sign in the window that read “Please buy this puppy while we’re busy bioengineering a dog that doesn’t require walkies.”

It’s no secret that even the great traditional publi…


Being a Preposition

The clearest instance I know of a discovery in English grammar that should have called for revision of certain traditional doctrines—though instead it was just ignored—is the radically improved understanding of prepositions offered by the great Otto Jespersen in The Philosophy of Grammar (1924), subsequently argued for in great detail by late-20th-century theoretical linguists like Edward Klima, Bruce Fraser, Joseph Emonds, and Ray Jackendoff.

The traditional definition of “preposition” says (an…


Words: a Time Capsule

People love words. We may not use them adroitly, spell them correctly, or like those who possess larger word-hoards than we, but The New York Times minifeature “That Should Be a Word” draws thousand of views for coinages like lostentatious (“overly proud of your downfall”). And there are more than a dozen Web sites devoted to the exhumation of obsolete words that should be made to stand and walk again. One of my favorites is Heather Carreiro’s 20 Obsolete English Words That Should Make a Comebac…


How We Speak

American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, is unique, in the old sense of “one of a kind.” It is the one and only academic journal that focuses on what’s happening with the English language in the United States.

The editorial policy is more inclusive, allowing articles on “the English language in the Western Hemisphere” and “other languages influencing English or influenced by it,” but the center of attention remains American English.

Many people are concerned enough to write …