Monthly Archives: September 2015


The Tennessee Waltz

gender_bending__tennessee_kid_cooper_by_totalzadrfangirl97-d5zdgmrWhat is going on in Tennessee? First we learn that they tried to ban mothers and fathers before coming to their senses. Now we learn that their flagship university tried to ban he and she—before it came to its senses. What senses are these, and how is it that Tennessee keeps losing them?

This week, we’ll look at he and she. At our first faculty meeting, before I’d learned of the issue in Tennessee, I heard a moment of gender awkwardness when the chair of one of our departments stood up to intr…


Ice Cream, Iced Tea, and Sundaes

Ice_Tea_(2571858493)Now that summer is yielding to fall in the Northern Hemisphere, and the long days of summer are yielding to the long nights of fall, it’s a good moment to contemplate the distinctive language of certain staples of summer — in particular, ice cream, iced tea, and the ice cream sundae.

Ice cream came first. The Oxford English Dictionary‘s earliest example comes from a 1672 history of the Order of the Garter: “The Soveraign’s Table on the Eve … One Plate of Ice Cream.” Another 17th-century example …


Permission to Footnote

It’s been 17 years since my realization that I was hoarding footnotes. I was using plenty of footnotes in my own academic work: I had been doing that since graduate school. But I was withholding footnotes from undergraduates.

Not that I was actively forbidding undergraduate students from inserting footnotes into their essays. But I wasn’t teaching them how to do it either, which meant that their essays included exactly zero footnotes.

I was teaching a senior seminar at the time of the realizatio…


Love Game

Serena WilliamsOnce a year, Flushing Meadows in New York turns into a 22-ring circus of tennis, and people start asking me, as a lifelong tennis player, what all those words mean. I wasn’t going to write about tennis lingo in this blog, but a new acronym in the sport put me over the edge. So here goes.

The name of the sport itself seems to have come from the French tenez, or “take,” which is purportedly what the server used to shout before firing the ball cross-court to begin the point. The game we play th…


Top o’ the Morning

What o’clock is it? Breakfast perhaps. Drop the from of and enjoy your cup of Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee, along with Land O Lakes butter on your toast.

Or maybe it’s midday in Salt Lake City, time to stop at the Bucket O’ Crawfish for “the best crawfish in Utah!” (Utah?!) If you prefer, there’s also a Bucket O’ Crawfish in Alameda, Calif.

In Clearwater, Fla., you can stop for a drink of Bone Daddy Pumpkin Ale at the Pair O’ Dice Brewing Co., #GetAPair. Fifteen different brews on tap.

At any ti…


Migrant, Refugee

Refugees_in_Hungary_1When is a migrant refugee? As war, starvation, and persecution drive millions of people from their homes and into strange lands, reportage struggles to parse the distinctions between refugee, displaced person, migrant, immigrant, and other terms for people on whom calamity has been visited and movement made inevitable.

I’ll focus here only on two words: migrant and refugee. These terms are critically important for political reasons, since laws and policies may extend to a refugee what might be…


In Search of Needless Words

In a 1918 version of his tract The Elements of Style, the Cornell English professor William Strunk wrote, under the heading “Omit Needless Words”:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, bu…


Grammar Gripes: Studies Say … ?

Grammar gripes copy

A well-known Facebook group

The news was forwarded to me over email. “Grammar Police = Female Millennials.” And apparently 46 percent of American adults typically correct family or friends when they mispronounce words.

On August 20, released the results of its online Grammar Gripes 2015 study (conducted by Harris Poll about three weeks earlier), and the press release got picked up by sites like PR Newswire, and then by the Associated Press and The New York Times. We here at Lingua…


Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015

OTM-Cover-Mod-194x300The great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks died Sunday. It was not a shock. In a remarkable series of essays for The New York Times (the last one published August 14), Sacks discussed the cancer that had been found in his eye in 2005 and had recently metastasized, and talked with frankness and grace about his imminent death.

But then most everything about Sacks was remarkable, one sign of which was the hundreds of heartfelt reminiscences and appreciations posted to the Times by his admirers.


Best Linguistic Jokes of the 2015 Fringe


Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about th…