Monthly Archives: April 2013


Being a Conjunction (slash Coordinator)

“Slang creates a lot of new nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs,” said Anne Curzan here on Lingua Franca recently; “it isn’t that often that slang creates a new conjunction.”

She puts her finger on exactly the right point there. For English to add a new word is not news. But the classes of words that modern linguists call lexical categories (“parts of speech” was the quaint 18th-century term for them) are like clubs of varying selectivity. They all admit new members from time to time, but whil…


Petting Peeves

A petting zoo is usually a cute, cuddly place. But the zoo of pet peeves about language isn’t cuddly at all. It’s filled with creatures captured in the wild of everyday use—misspellings, grammatical solecisms, clichés—and visitors come not to pet them but to voice outrage at their mere existence.

Look—there’s that awful hopefully! Here’s  no problem, you guys! There’s my bad and conversate and graduate college! There’s a complete collection of Lake Superior State University’s annual catch of…


We Do Not Seek to Rule

A recent article on the BBC News Web site mentions a wearable self-defense accessory: a bra designed to deliver a 3800 kv electric shock to would-be rapists. It was brought to my attention by an e-mail correspondent whom I will call KR. He pointed out that the following text (which raises a very reasonable question) contains an interesting example of the syntactically singular use of the pronoun they:

The bra is fitted with a pressure sensor connected to an electric circuit. So how can the weare…


Time Traveler’s Language Guide

One left, two left

Excuse me, I was just talking with a guy from 6,000 years ago.

Language, being learned rather than innate, has a natural tendency to change as each person learns it under slightly different circumstances.

It works like the game of Telephone, where each person whispers a message to the next, and the outcome isn’t the same as the input. Languages don’t change as fast as Telephone, because mispronunciations and misinterpretations usually get corrected by family, friends, tea…


Slash: Not Just a Punctuation Mark Anymore

383925-31428-26In the undergraduate history of English course I am teaching this term, I request/require that the students teach me two new slang words every day before I begin class. I learn some great words this way (e.g., hangry “cranky or angry due to feeling hungry”; adorkable “adorable in a dorky way”). More importantly, the activity reinforces for students a key message of the course: that the history of English is happening all around us (and that slang is humans’ linguistic creativity at work, not l…


Ben Yagoda Gets Sick of the Historical Present

The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage

The historical present is used in some Los Angeles signage

Enough already with the historical present. The go-to tense for history lecturers and NPR guests has worn out its welcome and is starting to come off as a twitchy reflex, as annoying as starting sentences with -so/”>So or ending them with t/”>right?

You probably know what I mean by historical present (HP), but in case you don’t, here are some recent examples:
• “Alonzo King is arrested for assault and they swab his cheek as part of t…


Responding First

1stbadgeOnce again, with the marathon bombings in Boston, we heard a term that didn’t exist when I was growing up: first responder. The blogosphere hums with disdain for coinages of the last 50 years, so I’d like to take a moment, in the midst of our grief and bewilderment at the bombings themselves, to celebrate this one.

A first responder, as we all vaguely know by now, is someone with a degree of training who arrives first on the scene of a disaster. These people might be medical personnel trained in…


First Word Problems

My last post was on correspondence closers—those expressions of fidelity and endearment on which the seamless fabric of academia depends. In that post I paused to admire the French use of elaborated closers.

At the front end of academic correspondence, however, nobody baroques it up like the Germans. Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt is a mouthful, but it’s standard issue in the world of male German academics. We couldn’t easily translate that gesture into English. The honorable Profes…


Signs of the Times

Ad from 'The New Yorker,' June 6, 1942

Ad from ‘The New Yorker,’ June 6, 1942

The other day, I got a message on Twitter from the writer Ruth Franklin: “Re. New Yorker book, question for you. Do you have a sense of when hotels stopped advertising as ‘restricted’?”

I didn’t know the answer, but I knew what she was referring to. In researching the prolific New Yorker short-story writer Irwin Shaw, for my 2000 book on the magazine, About Town, I’d come upon a story by Shaw, published in the August 17, 1940, issue, called “Selected Client…


King Jong-un

Talking about North Korea with a friend the other day I referred to the country as a monarchy, and my friend looked distinctly puzzled, as if I was misinformed, as if the DPRK was some kind of democratic republic.

It’s funny how some issues of straight political substance are misrepresented as being about word definitions, and sometimes vice versa.

Whether the benefits of marriage should be accorded to same-sex couples seems to me to be a substantive political issue—a civil rights issue—and …