Monthly Archives: January 2014


‘Love’: Final Exam


(Artwork by Dalton Ghetti)

I’m thrilled to have you in the course “Love.” My intention as teacher is to make you think, to push you to unforeseen boundaries. To achieve this, I will do a single—rather ambitious—thing throughout the entire semester: define the word in our title.

What do we mean when we say I love you? Is there a debt we incur? Is this a solely human emotion? Has it changed over time? That is, did the Greeks understand love the same way we do today? Together we’ll look at an as…


Lotsa Books ≠ Lotsa Muses

FOTG“Why Wasn’t It ‘Grapes of Glee’?” asked The New York Times last week, practically demanding my attention. The article was on a study using big-data techniques to document the correlation between the so-called economic-misery index and what the researchers called the literary-misery index. According to the report, published in Plos One, it takes about 11 years for words in the economic-misery index to surface in books. Authors absorb words from the culture slowly: “We do have a collective memor…


Moths to the Flame of Meaning

At the end of the English-syntax course I co-taught last semester, my colleague and I set a number of examination questions designed to test students ability to argue points about syntactic structure. This one will serve as an example:

Although the following two sentences exhibit a superficial similarity, they contrast sharply in syntactic terms:

[1] I saw Jane with her new boyfriend in the bar.
[2] I saw Jane and her new boyfriend in the bar.

Show that these two sentences have radically dif…


Unexamined Words

Picture 2

(Yeasaris, via Flicker)

Consider the following words. What do they have in common?




They all have transparent etymologies. That is, once clearly comes from one. Baseball is a game involving balls and bases. And a cupcake is a cup-sized cake, or a cake made in or with a cup, something like that.

Here are some more:




It doesn’t take deep thinking to recognize that storage has to do with storing things; a radiator radiates; and outdoors has something …


Polar Vortex

Picture 1

Niagara Falls this month (Shaheen Karolia, via Flicker)

Unless you’re a specialist in such things, there’s no use pretending you really know what a polar vortex is. I know I don’t. I’m just sitting here, reasonably cold, and watching most of the rest of the Eastern United States being unreasonably cold.

It doesn’t help all that much to call it, as some do, an arctic cyclone or a snow pig (apparently due to the shape of the storm’s formation as seen from above). Vortex is the word that’s sticki…


Blame It on the Sophomores


Freshman orientation, Washington & Jefferson College, 1934: The sophomores inspect socks.
(Photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

Last month in Lingua Franca, Anne Curzan considered the curious case of “freshman,” a word with perceptible gender bias that nevertheless has not been eradicated by efforts to promote gender-free “first year” in its place.

She notes that despite the “man” at the end, “freshman” to many students seems inclusive. The second syllable isn’t pronounced “man,” for example, an…


Summarize Your Thesis (One Line)

The game at is to reduce the main message of your thesis or dissertation down to a single line, ideally one short candid sentence. Much self-deprecating humor can be found on the site, along with occasional signs of cynicism or desperation.

Not many theses in my discipline show up, for linguistics is a minority pursuit. But I did find this one, from the University of Colorado:

“It appears, based on experimental evidence, that vowel perception is pretty much magic.”

I can well bel…




Honoré Daumier’s Don Quixote, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m told Don Quixote of La Mancha has a total of 220,939 words. It seems plausible, although every time I read it—about once a year—my impression is that it’s inexhaustible, containing not only the DNA of Hispanic civilization but its whole vocabulary. I’m wrong, of course, for no human endeavor is infinite.

At any rate, there is one word, a single one insidiously attached to it, that is thoroughly absent from its pages. In Spanish that word is…


I’m Not Betting on It


I’m on a phrase hunt, and coming up more or less empty. Some time back, my colleague Ben Yagoda ran through the various ways in which people acknowledge thanks, and grumblings arose at several of them. But for most of these phrases, there’s some sort of explanation. You’re welcome suggests that the thanker is welcome to whatever favor was done. No worries or No problem suggest that the favor was no big deal and doesn’t require thanks. But what about You bet?

I hear the phrase more and more ofte…


Because Word(s) of the Year 2013

fireworksYour hint about the outcome of this year’s Word of the Year vote at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society (ADS) is right there in the headline.

It was a lively gathering on a frigid Friday night in the Hilton Minneapolis, where we were all happy to have this very good excuse to be indoors. As always, we voted on other categories too, such as Most Outrageous, Most Useful, Most Creative, etc. You may have heard about other word-of-the-year votes over the past couple of months (e.g., O…