Monthly Archives: August 2015


From A to Z

imagesFolk etymologies are not unique to the age of Snopes. I discovered this amusing truth just after I’d signed my fellow writer Doug Preston’s letter to the Justice Department encouraging that arm of government to press forward with an investigation of possible monopolistic practices by Inc. First, I was curious about the opposition to Preston’s initiative, which turns out to comprise a small army of self-publishing authors. Their beneficent view of Jeff Bezos’ giant corporation, diametr…


The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart: “If you smell something, say something”

August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivere…


Etymology Is Not Destiny


Edward Heath, the latest of several deceased politicians alleged to have been pedophiles.

The many recent allegations of sexual crimes against children by famous figures in entertainment and politics have led to extensive discussions in the British press concerning what they refer to as pedophilia (or paedophilia in the usual British spelling). What a strange word. The Greek element -phil- is called a combining form in English grammar: not usable alone, and neither a suffix nor a prefix, but use…


Be a Lover

haters31Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. What, then, is the opposite of hate? The answer, it seems to me, changes when we accuse the person rather than the hate or the hating. In today’s parlance, a hater is not simply someone who hates — or rather, the variety of hate has become narrower and more specific. In politics, there are Hillary haters. Tom Brady recently called an ESPN commentator a “Patriot hater.” Anyone who writes in a forum, like this one, that i…


Reading Marathons

41rp4fJoHgL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_For bookish types, the equivalent of 42.195 kilometers is the reading marathon. Instead of running, you sit and listen and cheer the readers on and maybe struggle to stay alert and upright.

The complete Ulysses, every pentameter line of Paradise Lost, each word of that big book about a whale. There have been marathon readings of Catch-22 and Civilization and Its Discontents, Shakespeare’s sonnets, and even Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.  

Many a Christmas season has seen so-called mar…


Bias: Mark My Words

CareerWomanWe want our language to be free of bias, don’t we? Surely anyone of good will would want to be polite to others rather than unintentionally insulting them.

At first glance it seems simple enough. As the editor Malinda McCain writes on the ShareWords website, “bias-free language means using terms that treat people with respect.” And, she adds, this means also avoiding words that disrespect, “such as not describing someone’s physical characteristics when doing so serves no purpose.” In essence, as…


Diagramming Trump

According to “steveknows,” commenting on the Slate article “Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!” I have been punked. I don’t care. Gertrude Stein said there was nothing more exciting than diagramming sentences, and she wasn’t all that far from the truth. As with the claim that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is the longest sentence in the English language, calling Donald Trump’s explosion of language a sentence stretches the meaning of the word sentence. Verbal speech contains no punctuation,…


The Grammar of Healthiness

Health-stub copy

Image by Vassia Atanassova, Spiritia, via Wikimedia

Over lunch this past weekend, my father and I were talking about a friend of mine who always seems to have multiple ailments, some diagnosed and some not. My father noted, “At least some are real health issues.” I replied, “Yes, but we know that mental states matter too, and he doesn’t seem to be trying to help himself be, or seem, any more well.”

My father paused. “More well?” he asked skeptically.

I am not sure I have ever tried to make a com…


On @Tejucole and #Prompts


Teju Cole
Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

The use of the word prompt to mean incitement or cue has probably been around for 500 years or so, but its use in a narrower sense, as an instruction or directions for a writing assignment in class, is new to me. I swear I hadn’t even heard it until maybe a couple of years ago. “Professor, what is the prompt for next week?”

“Did you check the syllabus? Take this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus,” and rewrite it as if you were a reporter filing a …


Hyphenation, Carbonation, and X-Rays

The catcher and sage Yogi Berra was allegedly once asked if the name of the bottled chocolate beverage he endorsed was hyphenated. “No ma’am,” he is said to have replied. “It’s not even carbonated.”

Yogi was wrong on the first point, as you can see from this image.


But his confusion is understandable, so thorny can the subject of hyphens be. Even the Yoo-hoo folks appear to be hedging their bets, judging from the tininess of the hyphen on the label.

Hyphens are on my mind because a physician fr…