Monthly Archives: February 2014



1011236_439499546181294_2101076328_nThe new movie The Monuments Men may interest you because of its story line about the recovery of looted Nazi art, or because of George Clooney and the rest of the A-list cast, or  because it suggests that it’s actually possible to make a film about adults, for adults. It interests me because it’s called The Monuments Men.

That is, it appears to represent a phenomenon I have been monitoring for some time: the increasing use of the plural form of nouns in nonhead elements of compounds. Last year,…


Dry Spell


Col. Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, wanted to simplify English.

The other afternoon I was surprised by a phone call from a concerned citizen who identified himself as Eugene Segar of Detroit, 83 years old. He wanted to talk about reforming English spelling to make it more accessible to students and second-language learners.

His message wasn’t what surprised me. The ineluctable complexity of English spelling has been evoking calls for reform for centuries. No, it was rather…


The Lesser Kudos


Ammelaphus imberbis, formerly Tragelaphus imberbis, the lesser kudu
(Image via Wikimedia)

Kudos: the Greek word κδος means, according to the OED, “praise or renown,”  implying  that the person who possesses that quality has done something to merit it.

On the rare occasion when I have to say it out loud, I find myself taking pains to pronounce the second syllable so that it rhymes not with nose but with MS-DOS. That reference gives you an idea how long it’s been since I’ve said it aloud.

The word…


English for Everyone


Tower of Babel

When I was working as a reporter in London, I witnessed one of those “two countries separated by a common language” moments one soggy spring morning in 2012. A Boeing executive visiting from Seattle had made time ahead of a press conference to chat with the journalists in attendance, and we were all eager to forge the sort of personal connection that can lead to future scoops. The executive gamely opened the small talk with a comment about the weather. “Oh yes,” laughed on…


Politeness in Refereeing Favor Requests


Dog walker
by revolution cycle via Wikimedia Commons

Early one weekday morning you are at work in your study when the front doorbell interrupts you. On the doorstep you find a total stranger who hands you two dog leashes, a small container of kibble, and some keys. He states brusquely that you’ll need these later. You stare blankly as he walks away.

Five minutes later the phone rings, and someone from down the street whom you barely know explains that her dog-walker has canceled at short notice. …


Arrivederci! A Dopo!

2417_do-you-want-to-learn-italian-628x366I’ll be taking a work-intensive book leave from Lingua Franca beginning next week. Just before I return, I’ll be relaxing for a week in Tuscany, where we chose a villa based on the reviews. The negative reviews, that is, the ones that said, “Wi-Fi here is really terrible.” Yes.

I’m uncomfortable in countries where I don’t speak the language. My short-term experiences in Italy, which include two Italians playing a joke by helping me onto a train going south rather than north at 2:00 a.m., sug…


Spot the Captain


Nemanja Vidic playing for Manchester United
(via Wikimedia Commons)

The sports section of the The Guardian last week carried an article by Jamie Jackson about developments in the Manchester United soccer team, where a number of players are apparently not sure they will stay. The article cited the opinions of one player who is probably not coming back from Fiorentina, where he is currently on loan; and then it continued with this shockingly uninformative sentence:

The futures of several senior pla…


Best Regards


G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831); steel engraving by Lazarus Sichling after a lithograph by Julius L. Sebbers
(via Wikimedia Commons)

This week in his superb, extraordinary, unparalleled, remarkable Lingua Franca post on the “tenure code” (I hope I’ve included enough superlatives to properly sustain his reputation at Amherst), Ilan Stavans wrote, “What I don’t know, where I’m in the dark (as other outside reviewers surely are, too), is in regards to particular institutional codes.”

When a usage change oc…


Homing In

HomingpigeonI was reminded the other day of two things about prescriptive usage rules: (a) the power that comes with feeling like you know rules of usage that other people don’t (or have forgotten); and (b) the sometimes fine line between a usage rule that promotes standard usage and one that falls into nostalgia, stuffiness, or obscurity.

As I’ve written about on Lingua Franca before, I am a fairly meticulous copy editor (or at least I like to think I am). I try to ensure that my own and others’ formal…


The Tenure Code

At Amherst College, where I’ve taught for more 20 years (oy, gevalt!), a couple of years ago a tenure case was brought down in part because of the word “solid.” I’ve put it in quote marks in part because tenure cases are multiheaded monsters: Their rise or fall as a result of countless factors. In this particular one, one of the factors—and, ultimately, a stumbling block—was this much-contested word.

An outside reviewer had used it to describe a candidate’s publications record. It became a sub…