Monthly Archives: February 2015


Greek Gift: Triskaidekaphobia

Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” begins during the Lupercalia, an ancient purification festival celebrated from the Ides of February (the 13th) to February 15. Here, Caesar refuses the diadem presented to him by Mark Antony.

By a quirk of the calendar, or more fundamentally by a property of the set of integers, the number 14 always follows immediately after 13. It has been thus ever since the invention of counting, countless years ago.

So when the 13th falls on a Friday, the 14th will always be a S…


Left Sharking

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Right Shark, who unlike the Right Whale, really was on the right, and in the right, too.

As readers of Lingua Franca know, the fabulously expensive entertainment known as the Super Bowl consists of two frequently interrupted episodes of male violence that sandwich the thing many viewers turn in for. I mean, of course, the Halftime Show.

More than one hundred million people watched Super Bowl XLIX, which is apparently played in Latin.

For some of those viewers, …


Comprise Yourself

wikipedia-globe-sans-textBryan Henderson’s hobby is eliminating comprised of  from Wikipedia articles. Just another quixotic purist struggling to retard linguistic evolution? That’s what people seemed to think I’d say, as they busied themselves sending me links to Andrew McMillen’s Backchannel article about Henderson. But the situation is subtle, and head-swirlingly complex. I’ll explain as clearly as I can. Comprise yourself—I mean compose yourself.

A 20th-century prescriptive tradition insists that comprise and compos…


Baaack to the Future

I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer last week and read an article by Jeremy Roebuck about how a judicial ruling had revived the onetime local news anchor Alycia Lane’s long-dormant lawsuit against her former station. Here’s the line my eye was drawn to: “‘We’re back,’ Lane’s attorney Paul R. Rosen singsonged in an interview Friday, giving his best Poltergeist impression.”

You know that singsong. It’s an ascending musical fourth, then a descending third, with the word back elongated into two sy…

Setting a Watchman on the Language of the Past

Anglo-Boer-War-in-St.-LouisI heard the news of Harper Lee’s new novel—or, to be precise, of the planned release of the companion novel to To Kill a Mockingbird that she penned many decades ago—while I was doing research at the Missouri Historical Library and Research Center. My own subject, still vaguely outlined, is the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, now more than a century in the past. Lee’s subject, of course, was the Jim Crow racism that prevailed in the mid-20th century American South. In terms of language, t…


‘Dibs’: the Great Northern Parking Tradition

Say the magic word, and it’s yours.

Please? No, not please. The magic word that truly cements ownership, at least for a lot of us, is dibs.

If you’re not familiar with dibs, you can look it up. For this word, the grand new Dictionary of American Regional English has first dibs for lookup. There we find dibs (always plural) defined as “a claim; rights; right of priority—often used as exclamation.” And DARE presents examples of use going back to 1930 in South Carolina. Likewise,  the Historical Di…


Nice Going, Genius

Scalia: Sarcastic

Scalia: Sarcastic

In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by…


Me and Chris Jones, We Got a Thing Goin’ On

MS-MRGender neutrality, however loudly announced in official pronouncements or in the news, creeps into our own set of norms on little cat feet. In my case, I realized it had made another inroad when I was settling in at a symphony performance and heard the voice over the loudspeaker: Ladies and Gentlemen, please silence your cellphones and other electronic devices.

Why Ladies and Gentlemen? I thought. Why can’t he simply say, Symphony Patrons? Must he remind us at the outset of our socially assigned…


Rain Event, Snow Event

LF-8458547874_12fdf2f32e_kWhy have weather when you could have an event?

It sounds like ad copy for some divine meteorological service.

Recently a Chronicle editor posed the question, “When did the usages rain event  and snow event become popular?” To which I would add, “And why did we need these terms at all?”

First, the history. The Google NGram for rain event and snow event shows that the weather gets fancy sometime in the mid 1970s. That’s when the course of rain event starts making its jagged rise, and looking rath…


‘Ongoing Plethora’? Not What It Appears

I was browsing an article about tomato production in the Sacramento Bee (as one does) when my eye lighted upon the phrase ongoing plethora. It struck me as an oddly inept locution.

Ongoing is a dynamic temporal modifier, expressing the continuation of a present event into the future; and plethora is so static, referring simply to a quantity (more than is needed). Talk of an ongoing plethora seemed to me no more coherent than talk of an onrushing glut, or a hoard in progress.

Moreover, the two wo…