Monthly Archives: June 2013



Edwin Newman

Edwin Newman

The title of this post is not the name of a new cop show, but an acronym I just invented. It stands for “Changing Usage Impulse,” and it refers to the urge you (or at least I) get to perpetrate a usage that isn’t standard yet but, because it’s popular and fills a need, is well on its way to becoming so. Another name for the phenomenon might be Ergative Yearning, the ergative being the kind of verb used when one says “the car drives smoothly” or “the wine drinks well.” These expressi…


The Winter of Our Content


Sir Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare’s Richard III, the king in the carpark, knew something about discontent, and something about the manipulation that only language makes possible.

Last time I checked, this isn’t 1485, and the humanities aren’t at their own Bosworth Field, but it’s remarkable to see how content has become a powerful term of art.

If you teach in the humanities, you might think that your courses offer students something rich (and possibly strange), a textured fabric of…


A Postcard From Galicia


Grammarians might want to make their own pilgrimage to this street in one Spanish town.

Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain—This historic city, famous as the endpoint of a 1,000-kilometer pilgrimage route, has a short street named (in Galician) “Tránsito dos Gramáticos.” I don’t know of another city with a street dedicated to the grammarians of the world. How appropriate that the local university should be holding an international workshop on discourse analysis (IWoDA 2013).

I’m here not as a…


Hobson-Jobson, Definitively


Col. Sir Henry Yule, colonial lexicographer

As my recent posts have reflected, I’m still basking in the afterglow of the meeting last month of the Dictionary Society of North America, a gathering of about a hundred people who make dictionaries, study dictionaries, or just enjoy words.

Since that meeting, I’ve argued that “Unabridged” is an odd name for a dictionary. But that’s nothing compared with Hobson-Jobson.

That’s the name given to a dictionary whose sober subtitle, in one edition, is A Gl…


Hilary Us Autocorsets

buy_you_a_castle_custom-765c61e188d526d6602c7369280579b59b9ba4f5-s6-c30It’s not often I have to hold my legs together to contain myself laughing at some language goof or other. Usually it’s just a know-it-all smile or a forced chuckle. But “The 30 Most Hilarious Autocorrect Struggles Ever” had me weeping with giggles. At the risk of ruining the humor by dissecting it, I’m going to speculate on why.

It’s not the occasionally sexual or scatological results of the autocorrections. (Most of those are not printable in this blog, so you’ll have to click the link.) Wh…


Unabridged Commentary


Promoting an 1890s edition of the dictionary
(Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.)

unabridged noun A big dictionary.

unabridged adjective (Of a dictionary) big.

We’re so used to these definitions—most recently applied to the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged—that we don’t notice how odd it is to use “unabridged” for a dictionary. For that distinctive use, we can thank George and Charles Merriam.

What other word might you use to indicate that a dictionary is big? Well, you could try Universal, as in Nat…


Who Says Tomato?

I’ve just wasted a perfectly good morning scrolling through my own pronunciative history. Joshua Katz, a Ph.D. student in statistics at North Carolina State University, has produced a series of visualizations of the Cambridge linguist Bert Vaux’s online survey of English dialects, as applied to the continental United States. There are various pretty patterns of blue, red, united-states-dialect-map-languagegreen, yellow, and the blends in between, and you can check 122 maps showing regional differences in pronunciation, word choi…


Since You Ask …

I got into a Twitter beef the other day, yo. Don’t get the wrong idea—this wasn’t a hip-hop-style beef, with threats of bodily harm and profane insults about my opponent’s manhood, parentage, and rhyming skills. No, I got into a dustup with members of the American Copy Editors Society—ACES, for short.

It all started when ACES initiated a Twitter “chat.” A series of questions were thrown out, to be addressed by their distinguished guest, Erin Brenner (@ebrenner), or the public at large. The one t…


Sight for Sore Eyes

ted_Eyes_bloodshotWhen I stopped by a friend’s office the other day, he said, “Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” I responded, “I trust you mean that in the positive sense!” And he looked at me like I was from Mars. “What other sense is there?” he asked.

There is another sense, which came to my attention three years ago when a student confessed, in class, that she had been using the phrase “wrong” her whole life.  She explained that she had just recently learned that a sight for sore eyes was a good th…


You’re Wrong and I’m Changing the Subject

How do senior copy editors at major newspapers, magazines, and publishers react when academics point out to them that their decisions about usage are decisively at odds with the evidence about what is grammatical in Standard English?

They often simply avoid discussing the matter. A copy editor for the academic publisher Lawrence Erlbaum, when asked why all occurrences of though had been changed to although in my prose, said she would allow me to stet them; but she refused to answer my polite inq…