Monthly Archives: July 2013


Couples and Couplets

coupletsProfessors of a certain age, start your engines!

And students of a certain different age, start yours too. It’s time to begin daydreaming about the coming academic year.

Not about grades and exams and papers, of course, but about the things that really matter—romance, passion, sex.

The inspiration comes from a hot new novel, My Education by Susan Choi. No, I haven’t read it, but listen to this snippet from

“Regina Gottlieb had been warned about Professor Nicholas Brodeur long befor…


Mind Your Commas, Justin Bieber! Kisses.

ballphoto04Many years ago, a guy I’d known when I was in school in Brussels came to the States, and I was astonished to discover that he was fluent in English. During my time in Belgium, we had spoken only in French. Why hadn’t he let me know—especially since my French, though fluent, was not exactly native? “You know, I’m a funny guy,” he said, “or I like to think I am. But in English, I cannot play with the language.”

That’s exactly my experience in the two other languages I speak passably, and it info…


You SHOULD Look It Up




Speaking of quotations, have you noticed how many of them are misattributed, misconstrued, rendered wrong, or just plain made up? The Internet is notoriously unreliable, but its unreliability on quotes takes the cake, I believe. People seem prone to attribute any clever saying to Wilde, Churchill, or Shaw (or, if it has a homespun American quality, to Twain, P.T. Barnum, H.L. Mencken, Will Rogers, or Yogi Berra). Then other people pick up the mistake and it ends up on a Great Quotes pa…


How to Heart

i-heart-e1268494366408It began as a logo, designed by Milton Glaser, for an advertising campaign for the City of New York. The heart shape is a rebus, a picture used to replace a word, like the early-reading books that insert pictures of the main characters, their house, their pitcher of milk, etc. The word being replaced is “love.” Now, that metaphor deserves a slight pause before we proceed. The heart has not always and everywhere stood for love. As Robert Erickson pointed out in his brilliant book The Language of …


Crying All the Way to the Bank



I was reading Emily Nussbaum’s glowing New Yorker review of HBO’s Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, when I was caught short by this parenthetical sentence: “(When [Liberace] won a lawsuit against a British paper for a review that implied he was gay, he adopted a catchphrase: ‘I cried all the way to the bank.’)

I was familiar with the lawsuit, which the sequined pianist Liberace filed against the Daily Mirror in 1956 after one of its correspondents wrote, ”They all say that this de…


Thinking of You (and Here’s the Card to Prove It)

Every once in a while, even in the age of e-mail and Paperless Post, a professor needs to send an old-fashioned greeting card, one of those folded notes with lovely pictures and great effusions of sentiment printed on sturdy cardboard stock. Outside of a hymnal, the greeting card may be the only place most people read verse on purpose.

The greeting-card business has seen a lot of changes in 30 years. Now cards are in the drug store (in Aisle 8, just past the aspirin), or they’re near the holiday…


Extractor Fans, Big Brother, and the Passive

6555480303_ebf5e62370Governmentally endorsed building-code requirements where I live dictate that a room containing a bathtub must have permanent ventilation, typically an externally vented extractor fan. Usually such fans are built into the lighting circuit: Switching on the light even for a second causes the fan to run for 10 minutes after it is turned off. (I know, you must be thinking that this doesn’t seem to be about language or writing or academe yet; but bear with me.)

Like so many other health-and-safety ed…


Reduplication Station

For my previous post, I wrote soberly about Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive. This time, chop-chop, I want to connect it with an American grocery chain. Here’s the question:

What does a 19th-century dictionary of English as spoken in India have to do with the first modern supermarket in the United States?

Think about it.

Okey-dokey, time’s up. If you haven’t figured it out, here…


Coinages of the Realm


(Image by Flicker user Payton Chung)

I’m calling it neolohunger: the yearning—to which Calvin Trillin recently confessed in The New York Times and from which I also suffer—to, in Trillin’s words, “slip a phrase into the language.”

The phrase he holds up for envy is Tom Brokaw’s “the greatest generation,” referring to those who fought World War II and went on to rebuild America and Europe. Indeed, the phrase is now instantly familiar, even to those who don’t consider that generation to be…


‘The New Yorker,’ on Index Cards

If you go to The New Yorker‘s Web site, find an article or story you’re interested in, and click on it, you will be presented with a page the top of which looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2013-06-17 at 2.45.13 PM

If you are a subscriber, you can make additional clicks and see a facsimile of this short story—the top of which is visible at the bottom of this screen shot—as well as the entire issue of January 31, 1948, including cartoons and ads. But the text and image, as shown, are available to anyone in the world with an…