Monthly Archives: May 2014


Ketoohamohk Wuske Ketoohomaonk

So you’re ready to learn a new language. How about Wampanoag?

You’ll find it useful if you plan to visit Massachusetts. That is, if you’re traveling by time machine to visit the Massachusetts of about 350 years ago. That was when Wampanoag (aka Massachusett) was the principal language spoken by long-time inhabitants of the region, though it (and they) were being displaced by English invaders.

Poor Wampanoag! Back in the 17th century, it was important enough that some English-speaking politicians…


Questionable Style in the News

office-chairAn article about the benefits of standing desks in last week’s Washington Post highlighted a problem, and I’m not talking about the problem of sitting too long in a chair at the office (although this is a real problem). I’m talking about a different kind of chair.

My friend Barbara Beaton pointed out to me that the article refers to Loretta DiPietro, a pioneering advocate for standing desks, as “chairman of the department of exercise science” at the Milken Institute School of Public Health a…


The Fossilized Book

Books are no longer books, at least not what was meant by book a generation ago: an extensive work made of letters that build sentences shaped into paragraphs, written on pages glued together and bound in covers. That, at least, still describes the yellowish copy I bought in 1985, on the New York City streets, of Fahrenheit 451, which sits tightly in my personal library.

But these days, my personal library grows dramatically slower than it used to; I don’t buy print books as often as before.



The Vague Main Clause of the Second Amendment


I have often reflected on the problematic vagueness of the initial absolute adjunct clause of the Second Amendment. Reading about yet another university massacre last week, the topic came to mind again. But this time I realized that the worst thing about the amendment may be the main-clause syntax.

The absolute adjunct clause (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state”) has been much discussed. Its comma is extraneous under modern punctuation rules (an unmotiva…


Cursing in a Second Language

Conchita Wurst, 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner

Europeans cast their votes this week in a European Union parliamentary poll in which nationalist, Euro-skeptic parties are expected to do well—suggesting waning enthusiasm for the European project, and growing xenophobia.

I saw evidence to the contrary, however, on display two weeks ago in the final rounds of the Eurovision Song Contest. (Americans make fun of the marathon of mediocre music and canned camp aesthetics, but if soccer’s anything t…


‘Origins Unknown’

shenanigansIt’s such an American thing, an impartial observer might say: taking pride in an unclear ancestry. But as lovers of words know, etymology, like genealogy, gets mixed up in interesting ways.

Most words have traceable origins. Sometimes, though, we have nothing to go on, and so we get the dictionary’s best guesses:

• from Wolof (?)

possibly related to Old French

altered (?)

I’m particularly fond of dictionary entries that have “origins unknown” or “origins obscure,” or that exist in other stat…


Fun City

Today, the Beach Boys would sing, "We'll have fun, funner, funnest till her daddy takes the T-bird away."

Today, the Beach Boys would sing, “We’ll have fun, funner, funnest till her daddy takes the T-bird away.”

When a friend in his thirties came up to me at a party the other day and said, “I have a question about fun,” I knew he wasn’t going to ask about whether the word could be used as an adjective. That would be like asking if iced tea could be used as a beverage. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1997, Barbara Wallraff described Steven Pinker as remarking that “he can tell whether people are …


EDM and the Selfie

The Chainsmokers’ “#Selfie”

Last year I thought selfie, the generous posting of one’s self-portrait on the Internet for all to admire, deserved to be word of the year. Thanks to a canceled flight, I now know I was wrong; 2013 was merely the prologue for the grander opening of selfie in 2014.

I learned this from a 24-year-old, Nathan Solow, a consultant driving to a flight back to Washington, who gave me a fast ride from SPI to ORD in his rental car when our flight was canceled. He was eager to g…


The Politics of Taboo Words

sunTwo currently hot news items in Britain involve public figures using controversial language with political consequences. The Chronicle follows strict New York Times style rules about vulgarity, so I must use caution in giving some of the details about the cases I want to contrast.

The first concerns a radio DJ who made the mistake of playing the wrong version of a song: a 1932 recording with lyrics containing a word that today is regarded as an offensive racial slur (though in 1932 it wasn’t). O…


STEM Sells

What’s wrong with American education nowadays?

Take your pick. You can lament lack of support for the humanities, or lack of student interest in science.

If you’re concerned about the latter, you have a word for it. An acronym, actually: STEM. It stands for those areas of underinterest to students: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

That acronym makes possible headlines like these: