Monthly Archives: October 2013


Must Attention Be Paid?

For some time, I have been planning to write a Lingua Franca post on Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome. SSSSS (as I abbreviate it) begins when an individual writes or is recorded as saying something strikingly venal, inhumane, and/or dumb. The quote is then taken up and derided—in social media or blogs—by thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of other individuals. And then it spreads from there.

SSSSS is a growing feature of our discourse, for a couple of reasons. First: because so man…


What’s Not to Like?

indexThe other day I was just walking along when all of a sudden I stopped in my tracks. I was like, Eureka!

Why in the world would I do that?

Ah, it was a moment of enlightenment. I mean, I was like, At last! I know the answer!

I had hit upon the answer to a question that had been puzzling me for years. Why is it that so many of us nowadays say “like” (preceded by a form of “be”) to introduce something somebody said or thought?

Here’s a sample from Facebook:

“So I was talking to my friend the othe…


There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There

David Foster Wallace chose "she" as a pronoun for "the reader."

David Foster Wallace chose “she” as a pronoun for “the reader.”

The story up to now:

In a book I published in 2007,  When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, I made a bold prediction: “You heard it here first: By the middle of the 21st century, the epicene ‘they’ will rule in speech and writing.”

Last year, I observed in Lingua Franca that five years had passed since that statement, and it just wasn’t happening. To be sure, in conversation and online, t…


Killing What Darlings?

E4969563159377B8FB3286A0A16EThe title of the new Daniel Radcliffe vehicle, Kill Your Darlings, cleverly cross-references a familiar piece of writerly advice and the suggestion of murder. It also, according to my Harry-Potter-besotted students, effectively nullifies that piece of advice for at least as long as it conjures, not ruthless editing, but the image of a skinny, innocent, bespectacled Allen Ginsberg.

This short classroom discussion got me ruminating on writing advice. Killing darlings is usually a bitter but memora…


‘Lay Down’: My Burden

This is not click bait! Miley Cyrus actually is relevant to this post!

This is not click bait! Miley Cyrus actually is relevant to this post!

Everybody seems to be writing open letters to Miley Cyrus, especially, it seems, pop musicians who aren’t nearly as successful as she is. The latest example is a one-time indie personage named Sufjan Stevens, who put this on his blog:

Dear Miley. I can’t stop listening to #GetItRight (great song, great message, great body), but maybe you need a quick grammar lesson. One particular line causes concern: “I been laying in th…


Raising the Roof

alice-in-wonderland-clipart-2Well, we have a government again. But since the debates over money and politics are due to rev up before their jets have even cooled, let’s take a moment to look at one very messy metaphor.

I’m referring, of course, to the so-called raising of the debt ceiling.

Since George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, plenty of ink has been spilled over political speech. Most of the ink, today, is devoted to ways of manipulating the public into thinking black is white and day is night. Occasional…


Based Off of What?

I recently received this e-mail from a colleague: “I’m losing my mind reading papers with the expression based off of, which has become very widely used (rather than based on). What do you know about where it came from and how its meaning emerged?”

The answer to her question, at the time I received the e-mail, was “very little.” I too had noticed the construction and had the sense it was on the rise. A search of Google Books with the Ngram Viewer confirmed my suspicion:

Basedoffof copy

The rise in use since 19…


Be Fair, Oscar


I have always found Oscar Wilde a fascinating character. I don’t know why; I might well have disliked him in person. Flamboyant, arrogant, extravagant, weak-willed, self-indulgent, pretentious, Oxford-educated art snobs aren’t always exactly my cup of tea.

But today we don’t have to interact with the flawed human being that his friends and acquaintances had to deal with, do we? Our encounters are with the record of his sparkling wit, his wry paradoxes, his brilliant writing, his ingenious stage…



image4Back in 1883 “dude” would have been Word of the Year. No question.

How do we know? It’s thanks to Barry Popik and Gerald Cohen, in the latest issue of Comments on Etymology.

Comments on Etymology, edited and self-published by Cohen at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, has been characterized (by Cohen’s son) as “a blog before there were blogs.” It’s still like a blog, and it’s still not on the Internet.

Likewise, Popik, Cohen, Sam Clements, and a few other collaborators were goog…


The Higgs: Names Becoming Common Nouns

Professor Peter Higgs

Peter Higgs, professor emeritus at the U. of Edinburgh. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for The Guardian

Glancing out of the window as my bus pulled up on North Bridge in Edinburgh the other day, I found myself staring into an unmistakable face only a couple of feet away: the guileless, almost cherubic countenance of Peter Higgs. There he was standing at a bus stop in a scruffy anorak like nobody in particular—a man whose name is now a technical term in physics.

Not only is there a theoretical system …