Monthly Archives: June 2015


Koo-Koo-Ka-Chu, Mx. Robinson

fig,white,mens,ffffff.u2Just when you thought it was safe to go out and play in the fields of gender, along comes Mx. The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary is considering adding this new honorific for those who are uncomfortable with assignment to one or another gender. Comparisons with Ms., another invented “abbreviation” that doesn’t really abbreviate anything, are inevitable. Commenting in The New York Times, Alice H. Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern, suggested that unlike Ms., which wa…


Simile When You Say That, Partner


Patsy Cline’s voice inspired a memorable simile.

When I lived in New York City as a young man, I used to like to wander over to Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, on summer evenings. What I found there—and what drew me there, it now occurs to me—was virtuosity.  The Frisbee players catching the disk in fancy ways, the skateboarders and roller skaters doing their tricks, and street musicians improvising with their instruments and voices were all, not to put too fine a point on it,…


Scrabbling for Words

My Lingua Franca colleage Anne Curzan recently published a post about recent additions to the official Scrabble dictionary, of which there have been a surprisingly large number. (I guess that’s the way they’ve found to keep on selling Scrabble dictionaries.)

Naturally Anne didn’t object to this horde of new arrivals. We linguists always seem to be on the side of change, diversity, exoticness, and immigration, don’t we? But some people don’t like to see new additions. A few not only recoil at the…


Phoning Home

4502132-mdThe summer I was 20, I hatched the insane plan of riding the moped I’d purchased at my job in France through England and Scotland and over to my mother’s ancestral home in Ireland. Various near-disasters ensued, not the least of them occasioned by my ignorance of a war that was then raging directly along my path through Northern Ireland. But the daily challenge was the rain. My moped ran well through a light mist, but stopped dead in the frequent downpours that anyone with a grain of sense w…


Pluralism Marches On

Catching up on New Yorkers, I happened on a poem by John Koethe, which begins:

It’s a great poem, but, needless to say, what mainly interested me was Koethe’s use of covers band instead of cover band — to mean a musical combo whose repertoire consists of songs popularized by other performers. It was a new example, to me, of a phenomenon I’ve discussed in this space before — the growing pluralization of attributive nouns, such as Yankees fan replacing Yankee fan. As with such phrases as jobs (in…


A Nation of Hackers

Hack, hack, hack!

What’s that?

It’s the sound of a nation of hackers. That’s us in the 21st century.

Not so long ago, in the previous century, a hack was just a term at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for an ingenious solution to a problem. Those who invented the solutions were hackers.  As computers came along, hacks and hackers came along too, spreading the terminology beyond MIT into general use. Hackers were those who found hacks for computers, ways to stretch their limits or detou…


Laude and Clear

indexIt’s commencement season, and we all faced once again the last-minute fumble to figure out a pronunciation for Latin honorifics.

The responsibility for enunciating such things before a rapt audience of parents and well-wishers may fall on different shoulders depending on the institution, but if you’re an academic, there’s an excellent chance you’ll face the problem at one time or another.

The root of the dilemma is the Latin noun laus, meaning praise or commendation.

On the platform, however, a …


Tweeting Prepositions


Toward the end of NPR’s Planet Money podcast last week, the host, Jacob Goldstein, said: “You can tweet at us at ‘planetmoney.’ You can tweet at me at ‘jacobgoldstein.’”

In March, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addressed the U.S. Cyber Command task force and said (I quote from a transcript posted on Lexis-Nexis), “If you do nothing else and get nothing else out of this encounter today, I want you to do one thing, which is to go home tonight or make a call or tweet at your family, or do what…


Spelling Out the Consequences


In Shakespeare’s day, one could get by with spelling variations; not any more.
Image: Oli Scarff/Getty

A language is a dialect with an army and navy, as the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once supposedly said. We could update that to say a language is a dialect with an army, navy, and Silicon Valley, and it’s that, not any intrinsic merit, that makes English the dominant language of the world so far this century.

English certainly didn’t get there on the strength of its spelling system. On the con…


How Ridic Are the New Scrabble Words?

new scrabble words copy 2If brr and brrr are already playable words in Scrabble, why not add grr? On May 21, Collins, the publisher of the Official Scrabble Wordlist, did just that. As announced on the Collins website: “Over 6,500 new words have been added to the Collins Official Scrabble Wordlist — influenced by all parts of life, including social media, slang, technology and food, plus English from around the world.” Although the words, including grr, won’t be officially approved by the World English-Language Scrabble…