Monthly Archives: March 2014


Undivided by a Common Language

The alleged chasm that separates American from British English is often discussed in highly emotional terms. It probably won’t make me popular on either side of the Atlantic when I say that I think the differences have been wildly, insanely overstated. To cite just one example, I once met a British woman in Edinburgh who told me loudly and confidently that Americans had completely abandoned the use of adverbs.

People have been exaggerating the trans-Atlantic dialect distinctions ever since Oscar…


In Praise of Speed

From Disney's "The Tortoise and the Hare," 1935

Disney’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” 1935

“By the time I hit my 60s, I have a feeling Oliver Sacks is going to be writing about me,” said a friend recently. He was explaining his experience of reading. “I’ll sometimes look at a page of text and I don’t see words that convey meaning. Instead, I notice all the curves and lines of the letters.”

Sadly, Sacks isn’t likely to be working in 25 years’ time. In the meantime, my friend is searching for solutions to his, well, “condition.” He’s a person w…


Brevity and Attractiveness: Misreporting Linguistic Science

The Daily Telegraph recently carried a science report suggesting that logorrhea might damage men’s sexual chances. “Why silent types get the girl,” said the headline: “Study finds that men who use shorter average word lengths and concise sentences are preferred, while men who use verbose language are deemed less attractive.”

Apparently the “Hollywood cliché that the strong, silent type always gets the girl” has been scientifically validated. The most appealing guys are “men who use shorter avera…


That NPR Sound

Scott Simon: "My word!"

Scott Simon: “My word!”

I don’t get it when people say or imply that people on NPR all talk alike. To me their voices contain multitudes.

To be sure, there’s no question that, if the factors that determine dialect are age, ethnicity/race, class/education, and  region, NPR folk skew heavily oldish, white, overeducated, and from the U.S. quadrant that’s north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Minnesota-Dakotas line. It has to be that far west so as to include Garrison Keillor, whose voice is…


Goodbye, Goodbye. . . .

Here’s something we wouldn’t say nowadays. It’s in a “parlor ballad” published in The Social Harp (1855):

Farewell, farewell is a lonely sound,
And always brings a sigh,
But give to me that good old word
That comes from the heart, good-bye.

Adieu, adieu, may do for the gay,
When pleasure’s throng is nigh,
But give to me when lovers part,
That loving word, good-bye.

Farewell, adieu, goodbye—it’s strange that a 19th-century song should ascribe such loving emotion to the latter. We still say goodby…


Bullimong Drassocks and Other Problems


Thomas Watson, the Puritan
(via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to innovations in language, give me a Puritan. Not a regressive, arch-conservative type, whose  pleasures might be in the way things allegedly once were and forever should be, but a linguistically fun-loving fellow with buckled shoes and a closet full of black.

Poking around in Perry Miller’s classic anthology, The American Puritans, one might come upon many a tasty morsel of linguistic innovation.

To take just one example, in the M…



Electronic technology has had an impact on our language. And one of the greatest impacts, like that of an asteroid smashing into the Yucatan peninsula, is the way we greet each other: Hello!

Most greetings, in English or other languages, involve respect (Sir), the day (Good morning), health (How do you do, Howdy), or the like. Informally nowadays we say Hey or Hi, which might be condensations of How are you.

But none of these is the case with Hello. It has nothing to do with the day or the heal…



Red checkThis past weekend I escaped the polar vortex for a few days of vacation in warmer climes, and I found myself thinking a lot about the word perfect. It had nothing to do with the weather (which was lovely, but not perfect) or the hotel (also lovely, but is any hotel perfect?). It was the service. Not that the service was perfect. It just seemed that everything I ordered or said was perfect.

Server: “What can I get for you?”

Me: “I’ll take the salmon bento box.”

Server: “Perfect. And how would y…



“Can I be spermed?” a student asked in an email last year, requesting to forgo an extra assignment. I laughed. At the bottom of the message, it read: “Sent from my iPhone.”

In less than five minutes, the student wrote back. “Apologies, Prof. It wasn’t me but A-C. I really meant ‘spared’.” And she added: “It won’t happy again.”

This time I just smiled.

The complications brought on by technology are countless. And in them, the opportunities for Freudian slips never stop. Are we in charge, or has a…


Linguistics qua Affliction

I’d like to tell you something about what it’s like to have a training in linguistics, if I may.

The cheap pine boxes used for shipping bottles of wine from vineyards in France, Italy, and Spain make nice storage boxes when cleaned up and oiled. Several are in use in my home. (I am getting to my point; trust me.) One box bears the name MONTRESOR™, together with some lines in Italian:

Egli me riprese il braccio,
e continuammo il cammino.
- Queste cantine – osservò – sono molto estese.
- I Montres…