Monthly Archives: September 2015

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Papal Language

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The Pope of Mope

The occasion of a papal visit brings with it an opportunity to consider certain comfortable words. I use comfortable in its earlier sense, “strengthening or  supporting (morally or spiritually); encouraging, inspiring, reassuring, cheering,” to which the Oxford English Dictionary archly adds, “Obs. or arch.” But then the papacy has something arch. about it, though it is certainly not obs.

What are these words? To begin with, pope. It goes way back beyond the origin of the papac…

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A Healthful Perspective

grammar_peeves_mugThis past Saturday I was down in Washington, D.C., giving a seminar at the Smithsonian Associates called “Grammatical Gaffes: A Linguist Looks at Language Pet Peeves.” For two hours, almost 200 grammar enthusiasts and I romped through some of the greatest hits of  grammatical peevery, such as literally to mean ‘figuratively,’ impact as a verb, could care less, between you and I (or for he and I, etc.), use of less for fewer, stranded prepositions, the existence of irregardless at all, and singul…

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On ‘Diversity’

the-great-seal-of-the-usaI have become allergic to the word diversity. It feels empty, or worse, like a chore. Words lose capital when they are overused or when the cultural climate that fostered their meaning changes. Diversity is a good example.

I am a Latino. I have strongly benefited from the drive toward diversity. I like to think of myself as fostering that drive as well. But the fervor behind it belongs to past decades. Our cultural moment is an altogether different one. America is already deeply, irrevocably div…

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The Great Punkin Controversy

tumblr_nus05pehML1tg0kfio1_500Starbucks watchers were taken aback last month when the company made a surprise announcement about its standard-bearing fall beverage. This year, for the first time in its 12-year history, a Pumpkin Spice Latte will contain actual pumpkin, instead of merely spices associated with pumpkin pie.

I will not be able to report on the difference, regrettably. I never tasted the pumpkinless Pumpkin Spice Latte, so vile did it sound to me.

The PSL, as it’s affectionately known, has a cultlike following, …

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Members Only

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Hobbes’s Leviathan, an organization composed of limbs and other functional elements working together to accomplish something. Like a faculty.

If you want to speak of someone who has a teaching appointment you might refer to her or him as a faculty member or a member of the faculty.

If it were only that simple.

Since the 12th century, the term faculty  has denoted a group, and not any group: a faculty  is an indispensable aggregation and organization, the heart of any institution of higher educat…

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A Million Missing Words: The Search Is On

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Medal for lexicographic valor would look something like this, only more Wordnik-y (Image courtesy of Wordnik)

They are the dark matter of the lexiverse — a million words of the English language not yet recorded in any dictionary.

Words like these: farecasting, deanling, domainer, hyperloop, unfuckulate, anachronym, smokescreening.

About a million words are already on record in works like the Oxford English Dictionary, with 600,000 words, and Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, with 470,000 (many overl…

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Sex and Verbs and Rock ’n’ Roll

coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

My German is barely a smattering…

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Frosh

freshman_first_year_school_ornament_roundThis year, for the first time, I am teaching a freshman — oops, first-year — seminar. Right there is the problem. As readers of this blog know, I like to be on top of the latest gender-neutral neologism. For many years, the term freshman has belonged to a class of designations (fireman, policeman, mailman) for which our culture has tried to find gender-neutral alternatives. As my Lingua Franca colleague Anne Curzan noted in 2013, within colleges — arguably one of the most progressive institut…

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Such Good Friends

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Are these friends of Dorothy or friends of Dorothy’s?

On Saturday, Flavia Pennetta of Italy defeated her countrywoman, longtime doubles partner, and onetime roommate Roberta Vinci to win the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Her acceptance speech was heartfelt and gracious, but what caught my ear was one sentence, which you can hear at about the 7:58 mark in this YouTube clip:

I could be wrong, but what I think she is saying is, “It’s so nice to play with a friend of my.”

When I heard it, my thought…

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Pointless Vocabulary Diversity and Grammatical Structure

LanguagePolice

Geoff Pullum looked here for a discussion of useless vocabulary and weakened sentence structure in schoolbooks, but didn’t find it. If not here, then where?

I was recently browsing (I’ll tell you why some other time) in my long-neglected copy of The Basis and Essentials of German by Charles Duff and Richard Freund (Thomas Nelson, London, third edition 1945), and a polemical section in the introduction happened to catch my eye. It was a tirade against the practices of language teachers and examin…