Monthly Archives: April 2015

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‘A Piece of Cake’

It started with an email from my eclectic friend Wes Davis. He said he’d been reading Tinkerbelle, by, he told me, “Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who, in 1965, took a leave of absence from his job and sailed a 13-and-a-half-foot wooden boat across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England.” He’d come upon a passage he thought would interest me. Manry is just starting out and it’s a beautiful day, “the wind strong enough to keep us moving along briskly.”…

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Friend? or Just ‘-Friendly’?

You will remember the moment, when Frankenstein’s monster utters the word “Friend?” It may be the single best line of dialogue in James Whale’s 1931 movie classic.

My bit of linguistic poking today isn’t about changing social attitudes or expanded horizons of understanding, but about the way the suffix  -friendly is being asked to do so much work for us.

The compound  noun+friendly  has  become a soft marker of empathy, or sensitivity, or acceptance.  It isn’t about friends or friendship, b…

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Diary of a Visiting Speaker

kielmap

The audience at a talk sees the visiting speaker ushered into the room to check the connection dongle for the projector and greet a few faculty acquaintances in the front row. A brief introduction, a 50-minute talk, and a small reception and perhaps a hosted meal. Two or three hours, all expenses paid. Easy work?

Not exactly. For the speaker, the experience is quite a bit longer. I have about a dozen lecture trips this year, the most recent at the Christian Albrechts University, Kiel, Germany. …

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Apostrophe Where Is Thy Comma?

pyramus-and-thisbeMy hunch is that the case of the missing comma began with email. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend’s dilemma over email salutations, wherein the preferred casual “Hi” at the beginning is followed by a person’s name and then a comma, rendering the grammatically standard vocative comma (“Hi, Jane,”) perhaps superfluous and at least funny-looking. I’ve been counting, and of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from students since that post appeared, none — and I mean zer…

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Academic Writing as Such

I am being a stick-in-the-mud about the phrase as such, and I have decided I need to change my ways.

As the graduate students whose dissertations I have been reading over the past few weeks will attest, I have been underlining many — but not all — of their uses of as such. Finally one of them asked me what the problem was. She said, “I’m thinking perhaps I don’t know how to use this phrase.”

Or perhaps she knows exactly what this phrase means to many of her readers and I am just behind the times…

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Truly Incompetent English

Ukip

Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…

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Here’s My Truth

5870-i-feel-safe-to-speak-and-live-my-truthI know a guy who wakes up in the night and scrawls candidates for his WBM list. These things don’t necessarily make the cut the next morning. They have to be scrawled night after night, or linger in his head through the day, and eventually they’re added. WBM stands for What’s Bugging Me. If you don’t write “Susy shoes front hall” more than once or twice, Susy’s habit of leaving her galoshes in the middle of the hallway doesn’t really bug you, and you should get over it.

My truth has been making …

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How ‘Offline’ Came to Mean ‘Online’

I read this sentence in The New York Times not long ago: “Most evenings, before watching late-night comedy or reading emails on his phone, Matt Nicoletti puts on a pair of orange-colored glasses that he bought for $8 off the Internet.”

The phrase that caught my inner ear was “off the Internet.” It sounded odd because, given the widespread use of the expressions online and on the Internet, one would expect the preposition to be on. 

A possible explanation for the “bought it off the Internet” for…

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Getting Down to Brass Tacks — and Silver Ones

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and catch up with Comments on Etymology, that unique journal edited and self-published eight times each academic year by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology. The journal is on paper only, but you can reach the editor/publisher by email at: gcohen@mst.edu.

So far this year Comments on Etymology has documented in detail the possible or likely origins of abacus, kibosh, ukulele, and jazz. Now brass tacks has its turn. The latest issue…

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Funiculi, Funicula

Ngram antennaI woke up this morning thinking of larvae. Not the actual creatures, but the word. I moved on from there to hippopatomi and stigmata.

All of these, of course, are Latinate plurals adopted into English. Some are used more than others. What my waking brain was trying to discover was a pattern. Why do we tend to Anglicize some of these plural forms and let others be? And has anyone settled on the pronunciation of ae, and does it disappear at the same rate and the same time as the ligature, æ?

I’m…