Monthly Archives: March 2013


Auto-da-fé for the Façade of Diacritics

ipod-to-heavymetal-umlautThey’re going the way of the Lord God bird. Those umlauts, tildes, cedillas, accents aigus and graves and very occasionally the circumflex—all those funny little decorations that we used to have to retype or ink in, that we now access by way of the Option key, that get their own keys on those maddening foreign keyboards—they’re on their way out. Are you mourning yet?

The New Yorker is apparently a holdout, at least when it comes to the diaeresis—those two dots over a second syllable that are o…


Mr. X

The current issue of The New Yorker contains a very long article by Marc Fisher entitled “The Master.” It is a remarkable, scrupulous, and devastating account of many reprehensible actions of Robert Berman, a former English teacher at Horace Mann, a private school in New York City. The article alleges that in his career at the school, which started in the mid-1960s and ended in 1979, Berman sexually abused at least four of his male students. The parents of a fifth student, who committed suicide,…


Guys and … ?

When does a girl become a woman in the English language? If you spend a lot of time with college students, which I happen to do, you see them trying to navigate this question, trying to figure out what to call themselves and/or call each other. The ages of 18-22 seem to capture the girl-woman transition, at least lexically. Just think about sports teams: generally speaking, high schools have girls’ soccer, swimming, volleyball, etc.;  colleges compete in women’s soccer, swimming, volleyball…


Fair Comment and Privileged Occasions

I’ve been interested in the linguistic aspects of defamation law for many years. Delving into the history of libel and slander uncovers all sorts of strange facts. Some are discussed in Chapters 12 and 13 of my book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, among them a case of a linguistics book that was blocked from publication because lawyers advised that the invented example sentences might be grounds for a libel action.

Under English case law, you can be sued (perhaps even successfully) for the con…


OK, the Gentle Giant

OK cookiesIn the warm afterglow of the worldwide celebration of OK Day on Saturday (commemorating the birth of OK on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post of Saturday, March 23, 1839), I can’t resist a few more words in praise of OK, that gentle giant.

OK is America’s greatest word. No other locution even comes close. I suppose the next greatest American word is jazz, the great-sounding word applied soon after its birth a century ago to the greatest American invention in music. But even if you’re a jazz mus…


Being an Apostrophe

A putative grammar outrage blew up a week ago in Britain when the Conservative-dominated Mid Devon district council announced plans to “abolish the apostrophe.” The signs for Beck’s Square, Blundell’s Avenue, and St. George’s Well would under the new policy say Becks Square, Blundells Avenue, and St Georges Well. Indeed, the council has been using apostrophe-free signs for years, like other districts (the pictured sign for Baker’s View is in neighboring Teignbridge district). The proposal was si…


Happy Birthday, OK!

Chinese vertical (2)Hard to believe, but with the coming of spring, it’s OK Day again, the birthday of OK.

It was a mere 174 years ago that OK was born, on March 23. It made its newborn appearance that Saturday morning on Page 2 of the four-page Boston Morning Post, in a turgid paragraph of would-be humor. The sentence that first gave ink to OK reads as follows:

The “Chairman of the Committee on Charity Lecture Bells,” is one of the deputation, and perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of th…


Don’t Thank Me?


Ryan Johnson/The Arbiter

Satire can be so subtle. That’s what I thought at first when I read Nick Bilton’s column on digital etiquette in The New York Times. When Mr. Bilton wrote, “Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says ‘Thank you’? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google? Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?” I waited for my laugh c…


Warren Buffett Is a Better Writer Than I Am. Damn It.

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett

Periodically, I experience a sinking sensation roughly verbalized as, “The person who wrote what I’m reading isn’t a writer by trade, but does what I do better than I do. Damn his eyes.” When I had such a reaction to the memoirs of Alec Guinness and Bob Dylan, and the diaries of Richard Burton, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that they are, or were, creative types.

But not so with my most recent sinking feeling. It came a couple of weeks ago, while I was reading Warr…


Getting Soft

Andersons“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks?” croons young Romeo. Generations of high-school students have puzzled over what he meant, perhaps most of all over that “but soft.”

Shakespeare’s romantic Veronese is saying something  like “Hang on a minute” or “Hey, look!” He’s not particularly interested in softness.

But we are,  at least by the evidence of contemporary usage. The word soft has an extraordinary range of meanings and uses in English—pleasant, unmanly, untested, agreeable are j…