Monthly Archives: April 2013


Tips of the Slung

 To the language gourmet, nothing is as delectable as a mistake. A correct spelling, punctuation mark, word choice, or pronunciation doesn’t tempt the palate; it merely indicates that the author has successfully followed convention. To put it another way: Happy utterances are all alike; each unhappy utterance is unhappy in its own way. You could write a book about the latter. Call it something like “Eats Shoots and Leaves,” and  you might have a best seller.

There is one kind of mistake that’s…


Operating Writing

death-and-taxesWhen you’re preparing your taxes, you have to get your laughs where you can. I use an online filing tool that has saved my sanity, but it is—like all such programs—one size fits all. When it comes to the income other than my salary, I have picked the category “999999,” which is everything that is not categorizable as food service, freight hauling, and so on, and have described the service for which I am being paid as “writing.” It is, after all, what I do when I’m not teaching, u…


Dusting an Unpacked Box

imagesI hadn’t meant to follow up on “>my homophone post, but this week’s New Yorker has inspired me. First, let’s get our terms straight. Several commenters referred to the words I listed (peek/peak, maze/maize, census/senses, etc.) as homonyms. But although a homonym—same spelling, different meaning (bark/bark, stalk/stalk, etc.) is a type of homophone—words that sound alike but mean different things—the reverse is not necessarily so. A homonym is a subset, if you will, of a homophone; and, …


What Does ‘What Does That Even Mean?’ Even Mean?

WHAT-EVEN-IS-THISPullum’s e-mail read, “Most things, yes.  It’s a bit of a problem.  I have often written pieces that then had to be just tossed in the electronic trash because he published a longer and better discussion before I was finished. And I ought to be five hours ahead of both of you, on UK time.”

He was responding to my own e-mail, which asked, simply, “Does Liberman get to EVERYTHING first?”

“Liberman” would be Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-f…


How Many Hands Are Required?

Hand_imageI have had an inkling for a while now that as a copy editor, I have been enforcing a rule that might not be justified. This post is part confession, part apology to all the authors whose prose I have changed without good cause, and part contemplation on prescriptivism.

For most of my editing life (including nine years as the co-editor of the Journal of English Linguistics), I have had a thing about on the other hand when it does not follow on the one hand. I have had it in my head for all these …


DARE Up in the Air


The DARE map (top), with state codes, compared with a geographic map. DARE’s map is based on population density as of the 1960s. It shows responses DARE collected during fieldwork in 1965-70.

Where does a dictionary reside nowadays?

In the cloud, of course.

But what if was created before there was a cloud? Then you’d have to look for it on the ground, in ink on paper.

And on paper, perhaps the most monumental lexicographic enterprise in the field of American English has just been completed: the


Orwell and the Not Unblack Dog



In my April 4 post I called George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language” (P&EL) “A smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational.” I couldn’t substantiate all these charges in one post; I dealt with just one specific piece of silliness. Let me now explain why I charge P&EL not just with silliness but with intellectual dishonesty.

Orwell affects to believe that we users of English coul…


Most Sincerely Yours (Really)

MunchkinCoroner08f686cc-3224-4b53-bb05-003ed72fcbf2“She’s not only merely dead,” proclaims the Coroner in The Wizard of Oz, “she’s really most sincerely dead.”

I’ve heard that line hundreds of times,  and seen the film dozens, but only recently have I noticed that the Coroner’s professional judgment culminates in a gesture of epistolary finality: most sincerely. Surely the most gracious way to be an ex-person.

With such adverbs, ladies and gentlemen, letters once took their leave.

The epistolary closer is a formality, a bow and departure from th…


Elimination of the Fittest

blogtagcloudGeorge Orwell is well known to have legions of admirers who will leap to the keyboard to attack anyone who criticizes their hero. We academics are all supposed to admire him, and especially to regard his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (henceforth P&EL) as a deathless masterpiece of political and literary insight, and to urge our students to read it. Two distinguished evolutionary biologists devoted recent blog posts to ladling renewed praises on P&EL: Jerry “Why Evolution Is True


100 Years of Jazz

SSpringer (2)

Illustration accompanying Hopkins’s 1913 article in “The Bulletin.” It was probably meant to be Hopkins himself.

I’m going to turn this post over to a guest columnist, Ernest J. Hopkins. On April 5, 1913—yes, almost exactly 100 years ago—he devoted “What’s Not in the News,” his regular column in the San Francisco Bulletin, to a brand new baseball term, jazz. It wasn’t the first use of the word in print, but it came close, and it was quite a send-off.

How this jazz came to designate New Orleans m…