Monthly Archives: January 2014




“The Battle of Jericho,” Gustave Doré

“And the Canaanites slew the Amirites, because they had done evil in the name of linguistic brevity.”

That punishing thought may not actually show up in any of the Biblical accounts, but in recent months the amirites  have invaded my social media. My first reaction (I’d been looking at a lot of Italian librettos recently) was that an amirite  was some Italian or Latin second-person plural I didn’t get. But of course it isn’t, it’s just am I right reduced to …


Obama’s State of the Onion


Barack Obama in 2014
(Image from

I’m saturated with Obama’s rhetoric. I’m not talking about his politics, which, in and of themselves, have been disappointing. The list of miscalculations, overreaching, and unfinished business is staggering: immigration reform, drone use, NSA, a stumbling health-care reformulation.

All that worries me. But his speeches put me to sleep.

I voted for him twice. The Republican alternative was unbearable—it still is. I thought Obama would be not just the…


Cannibal Commas

commaThe writer Bich Minh Nguyen posted a question on Facebook the other day that drew a swell of discussion:

Grammar dilemma over here. According to grammar sites we’re supposed to write “Hi, Jane” rather than “Hi Jane” (because “Hi” is different from “Dear”). But this just doesn’t sit right with me. I dislike the two commas involved: “Hi, Jane,” looks cluttered compared to “Hi Jane.” I’m starting to feel a little anxious whenever I start an email. Will the person I’m writing disapprove of my (lack …


Not Cricket

Game of Cricket
(by Dave Pearson via flickr)

It is a slow and tedious game of men slowly walking about in long white trousers, and a metaphor for British fair play. As a spectator sport, cricket seems to me about as interesting as watching paint dry, only without the same sense of achievement. Yet Lynne Truss is a smart and funny writer even on that unpromising subject. Some of her essays on the game have had me not just chuckling aloud but actually grasping a few things about the sport.



Cute Words

Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood in “The Big Sleep”
(Image courtesy of

It’s so cute the way people use it. Like in the “Cute Quotes” on Pinterest:


You’re awkward,
but in a cute way.
Like an elevator ride,
but with puppies.


There’s a contemporary definition of cute posted a decade ago by “anonymous” on

cute A girl who is lovely and dreamy and cuddly and shy and beautiful and awwww *druels.*

That definition has been affirmed by more than 8,000 thumbs up a…


‘Concern Trolls,’ Passives, and Vultures

concerned_trollcat“Concern trolls thrive on passive constructions the way vultures thrive on carcasses,” says Alexandra Petri in a Washington Post blog. My attention was captured not so much by the weird vulture comparison (she really hasn’t thought that through), but by the question of whether she had correctly diagnosed the “passive constructions” to which she refers. I’ll answer that question shortly. (In the meantime you might like to guess.) But first, some context.

Petri is commenting on a New York Times ar…


Happy Otchig Day!

Moonack in the sun (courtesy of Wikimedia)

On what we could have called Otchig Day, February 2, legend says the gopher rat will emerge from its underground burrow to look for its shadow. In case of shadow, this pasture pup will retreat underground, and we’ll have six more weeks of winter. But a cloudy day will encourage the johnny chuck to stay above ground, and winter will be over.

Most of us know this subterranean dweller by the widely used names groundhog and woodchuck. The recently published…


‘All Plogged Up’ … Am I All Alone?


Remedies for a plogged nose.
(Image courtesy of flickr.)

It could be the fact that it is below zero outside here in Michigan or it could be the sniffles that I seem to have acquired in the past 24 hours. For whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about the word plogged.

I had a glimmer of hope that I could solve the mystery of plog  now that The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) has gone digital. I knew that DARE did not contain plog  or plogged  as headwords, but I thought one of them…


‘To Be or Not to Be’—in Spanish


John Barrymore as Hamlet, 1922
(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Spanish has two verbs for “to be”: ser  and estar. The difference between them is dramatic, not to say existential. Ser  refers to the condition of being as a whole, whereas estar  places that condition in a temporal context. We say soy feliz  to describe a person’s character: I’m a happy person. Instead, we say estoy feliz  to refer to a passing mood: I’m happy now, but who knows about tomorrow? Of course, there are multiple, at time…


Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Words

imagesA colleague sent me a contest offering from the venerable American Scholar, magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Titled “Lingua Americana,” it begins by setting out examples of “wonderfully expressive [English] words that defy translation,” including flaky, finagle, and hullaballoo. Remember those words; we’ll return to them.

The contest then proceeds to list untranslatable words that it considers “a bit of a mouthful,” like schadenfreude, or simply unacceptably non-English, like frisson, sim…