Monthly Archives: November 2013


Motörhead, Häagen-Dazs, and Yöu

Like many Lingua Franca readers, I spend some of my life in airports, which has undoubtedly given me a skewed view of language. Be that as it may, I’ve been particularly struck this autumn by what seems to be the rise of the reckless diacritical.

I’m not a linguist, as readers of this blog will know. I won’t delve into the historical arcana of diacritical marks, except to say that they seem to have been necessities of writing since antiquity, as if alphabetic language itself were born in need of…


On Line in New York City

New Yorkers have been on line since before there was online—for nearly a century, at least.

They are so prominently on line, in fact, that those of us in the hinterland know it’s a way to identify New Yorkers by the way they talk. Not by their pronunciation, but by their words. If instead of waiting in line or standing in line, you wait or stand on line, you must be from New York—the city, that is, and neighboring New Jersey.

That fact is confirmed by the recent Dictionary of American Regional E…



Elizabeth Bishop in 1954

Elizabeth Bishop in 1954

I’ve been waiting 40 years for The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing), without realizing it. Like many people, I was introduced to this poetic form by Elizabeth Bishop’s breathtaking poem “Sestina,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1956 (hence the spelling of the key word “marvellous”), and which my roommate was reading for a college class. The poem begins:

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother



Kombischild-Foto-Handy-verbotenIn summer 2012 my mother-in-law, a daughter of the German industrial heartland, mentioned plans for the afternoon that had her very excited: She was headed to a public viewing. It  wasn’t morbid curiosity—some sort of Teutonic necrophilia—that had her raring to go. In Germany, a viewing has nothing to do with open caskets. Rather, it’s the public screening of a film or a televised event—in this case, the London Olympics.

She couldn’t hide her annoyance at my confusion. It was an English phrase…


Making Hey

Willie Mays Kneeling on Ground

Willie Mays, known as the Say Hey Kid

Hey, gentle reader. I have a little something for you today. No eureka moments, just an observation:

In the United States, “hey” is gradually taking the place of “hi” in friendly greetings—whether in person or online.

I don’t mean the “hey” of “Hey, you! Yes, you!” that we use to attract someone’s attention. We’ve always had that. This is the “hey” or “hi” we say when we recognize a friend or acquaintance coming to meet us, or when we s…


Sports in Everyday Speech

The Red Sox celebrate their World Series win. Photo: EPA/Jason Szenes

Last week the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, and while other folks were debating the bushy beards and the obstruction call, I was thinking about idioms. (Yes, this is what it’s like for me as a linguist and a sports fan.) I was also thinking it was a shame that the Detroit Tigers were not in the World Series, but that is not really relevant to this post.

The language of sport pops up in idioms all over American English, …


Was It Really Oscar?


Two weeks ago (Be Fair, Oscar; October 22), I wrote about my disappointment on discovering that Oscar Wilde had leaned on silly prescriptivist poppycock in critiquing someone else’s prose. I should confess that there’s a wrinkle, which for reasons of space I didn’t mention. One author who has made a detailed study of journalism and literary criticism in the relevant period believes that Wilde might not have written the column in question

The piece under discussion was an attack on the prose sty…


Meeting Jibboos

A_jibbooIt’s around this time in the semester that I feel the particular burden of being a teacher of creative writing in an English department within a liberal-arts college. Not that we are any more burdened, generally, than other profs grading midterms. But it’s a peculiar position to be in when it comes to marking student prose for questions of usage.

Most, if not all, students come to college believing that their English teachers are the ones in charge of appropriate use of written language. Many of…


Linguistic Fuel for a Political Brushfire


Britain’s jumper-wearing Prime Minister David Cameron

A significant body of press coverage suggests that the Conservative-led government of Britain recently recommended wearing jumpers (sweaters) as a response to increases in heating costs, and later did a U-turn. None of this is true; yet somehow the British press managed to create a mini-scandal dubbed Jumpergate out of it.

Jumpergate was spawned mostly by quotational inaccuracy verging on mendacity. But it was helped along by certain facts ab…