Monthly Archives: July 2014

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…

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When Is a Novel Not a Novel?

I was taken aback recently to pick up an (unnamed) magazine for which I’d written an article and see my brief bio begin with the words: “Ben Yagoda is a novelist. … ” I am not a novelist, never have been, and have not (since the age of 15) even had any aspirations in that direction. This isn’t because I have any disdain for the form but rather the opposite. Loudon Wainwright III sings in “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan Blues” that he held off writing songs as a youth because of the mere presence of  Dyl…

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The Sylly Season

Yes, as the days of summer begin to wane, it’s time to get a bus out of its garage, refurbish the interior, and polish it up to convey the essence of a class for the fall. In other words, to prepare a syll-a-bus.

The syllabus is heir to a venerable tradition of typographical error. You might think it’s a simple Latin word like alumnus, but it’s not. It just looks that way.

In fact, its etymology is complicated. It takes the Oxford English Dictionary more than 150 words to explain that syllabus c…

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The Languages of the World Cup

James Rodriguez’s “poem of a goal” against Uruguay. The English commentator likened it to the cream atop strawberries on a summer night.

Borges, in an interview, once said that he didn’t like soccer. “But it’s popular,” the interviewer said. To which the author of “Emma Zunz” replied: “Stupidity is also popular.”

Too bad. He was an hombre de letras attuned to the changing nature of language. Indeed, he once wrote an eloquent defense of Argentine Spanish that was prompted by a stilted argument pr…

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‘Quality’ Time

Strolling about London on a recent vacation, I was gobsmacked to come upon this:

quality

The reason for my surprise was that, on my mother’s knee, I was taught that quality should not be used as an adjective but exclusively as a noun referring to a feature or characteristic of a person or thing. I haven’t been on my mother’s knee for a long time, but the injunction is still widespread. Bryan Garner’s entry on the word in Garner’s Modern American Usage reads, in its entirety: “When used as an adjective …

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Legitly Legit

seems-legit-9A high-school Spanish teacher from the western parts of Michigan emailed me a couple of months ago about a new word. She felt bombarded by the word legitly. “I legitly left my homework at home!” a student would say, or “I legitly bombed that quiz.”

When I looked online to see if this new bit of slang was being discussed, I was surprised by the level of disdain I found. The first definition in Urban Dictionary reads:

used by idiots as the full word based on the abbreviation ‘legit’. these people …

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The Goldfinch and the Stewardess

dv2073195The literary world has been engaged in a hearty dialogue over the merits and deficiencies of Donna Tartt’s massive novel The Goldfinch, which spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Rave reviews of the book’s range and rich plot have confronted scathing condemnations of its cloying stock characters and overstuffed passages. We won’t rehearse the whole controversy. Let’s home in on a single word usage:

“I was asleep almost before the seat belt light went off—missing d…

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Mandarin Myths

timesexthingSeenox (it bills itself as “the ultimate time waster website,” so you have been warned) offers yet another compilation of signs in China with hilariously botched English translations. An obscene instruction about what to do with vegetables; menus listing “roasted husband” and “fresh crap”; a portable “EXECUTION IN PROGRESS” sign for janitors to use; 40 of the usual suspects are there. But they are introduced by a passage containing two myths about Mandarin Chinese. One is that Mandarin is “the m…

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The First Dude

suit-19th-century-thumbNo, I’m not referring to the president of the United States. Instead, it’s the first known appearance in print of the great American word dude, newly clarified in the latest issue of the journal Comments on Etymology, published by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology.

In 1882 dude was unknown. In 1883, it was on the pages of seemingly every newspaper in the United States, as a brand new label for a foppish young man. And it was all thanks to an 84-line poem in the New …

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Bully for Them

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, "My hat is in the ring."

Theodore Roosevelt was apparently the first candidate to declare, “My hat is in the ring.”

If you’re looking for a great summer read, and you anticipate a summer with a lot of time on your hands, I highly recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit. Its 928-page length is to some extent a function of the fact that it covers four separate topics, each of which could have been a book of its own: a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a brief biography of William Howard Taft, a study of the…