Monthly Archives: September 2013


No Synonyms, Please

Today’s quiz: What’s the difference between a bag and a sack?

(Spoiler alert: Before you read further, what’s your answer to that question?)

All right, you have your answer? It’s not hard, after all.

I put the question to three dozen first-year students at a small Midwestern college. Here’s what some of them said:

—Bags have straps, sacks have handles.

—A bag has handles and is usually bigger.

—A sack can be plastic or paper, while a bag is cloth.

—A bag is brown paper and a sack is plastic.



Gentler, Cuddlier Grammarians

Rachel Toor bravely confesses in her most recent Chronicle article, “My Little Bag of Writing Tricks,” that she doesn’t do grammar.

“Identifying the parts of speech never made it into my repertoire,” she says. To see this from a university teacher of writing is like seeing a scientist admit to never having been much good at multiplication.

“Once someone starts talking about verb moods, dangling whosits, and misplaced whatsits, I squirm,” she goes on. “When I try to struggle through their prose e…


This Means Wah!


The menu at Wah Lah restaurant in Connecticut

Throughout the land, voices are crying in surprise and delight: Wah lah!

(Or sometimes it’s Wa la! Wa-lah!!)

And throughout the land, other voices are raised in protest against that cry.

What’s going on?

Just the usual, the telephone game that gets played when one language picks up a word from another.

In this case, as the protestors disdainfully point out, it’s a nice little expression that we’ve learned from the French. “Voilà!” they excla…


We’re on the Eve of Disruption

competitive_disruptionI’m feeling very late to the party. A colleague sent a recent article by Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic, which apparently echoed a post by Andy Rachleff on the Web site TechCrunch, both on the term disruptive. Last I heard, disruptive described my son’s behavior when he ate too many brownies at the Scout Jamboree. Back then, disruptive behavior was a tendency to be tamed or channeled. Now it’s a theory, a strategy, a goal. Not to mention an approach that academics need to be aware of, …


The ‘Times’ Tries Zeugma, and Readers’ Patience


Willem de Kooning

My mother was a praeteritio buff. That was the word she used, anyway. Richard Lanham, author of A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, a copy of which has been in my possession since I picked it up at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble (at that time, the only Barnes & Noble), in 1978, prefers “occupatio,” which he defines as follows:

A speaker emphasizes something by pointedly seeming to pass over it, as in introducing a guest speaker one says, “I will not dwell here on the twenty books …


In One’s Wheelhouse: From Boats, to Baseball, to …

BaseballI rarely remember where I’ve picked up a new expression. When did I first hear “yadda yadda yadda” so that I could subsequently add it to my repertoire? I have no idea. But with the phrase “in my wheelhouse,” I can pinpoint the person and the context: a colleague in the English department with whom I began working closely three years ago.

This colleague—we’ll call him Jeremy because that is his name—would regularly describe a course or a task or some such thing as “in [or not in] his whe…


Blurred Red Lines

A shot across the bow, from the Vietnam War. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A shot across the bow, from the Vietnam War. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Quote of the Day in The New York Times on Wednesday came from President Obama, who said in Stockholm, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”

Oy, red lines again.

The metaphor refers, of course, to what, specifically, Syria would have to do in order to ensure that the United States would intervene. Back in August 2012, Obama had said: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons movi…


Dr. King’s Music

Listening to NPR replays of audio clips from the 1963 March on Washington, I found myself listening once again to Dr King’s most famous minutes of air time. This time, though, I heard in the “I have a dream” trope something I hadn’t heard quite before, and that’s its music.

It’s probably no coincidence that this summer I’ve been working on a book about music and Shakespeare. I’ve been absorbed in thinking about phrasing and long lines, and the ways in which language gets pulled apart when mu…


Who’d Want to Be a Dick Swiveller?

dick_swiveller“What’s going on with this ’twas ever thus thing?” said my partner, Tricia. The phrase had been uttered twice before 9 a.m. on the BBC’s radio news program already that morning. Prime Minister David Cameron said it when talking about Syria, and later another Conservative politician used it in a segment about badger culling.

“A couple of years ago I’d never heard it,” said Tricia, “but now everyone’s saying it.”

Casual claims about the suddenness of additions to the language are almost always wro…


Breaking Good


The hip-hop band Run-D.M.C. sang: “Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good.”

Who says bad guys can’t be rehabilitated?

Maybe it’s not so easy to change a person’s character. But in language, time and again, the baddest of the bad turn out to be the goodest of the good.

To turn the title of a hit AMC television show on its head, these words break away from being bad and become superlatives of good.

Take killer, for example. gives its first definition simply as “very cool….