Monthly Archives: October 2015


Spider’s Web of Worrisome Words

Spider-2Here’s a creepy story for Halloween. And it’s all true.

Half a century ago — on the first of March 1965, to be exact — there emerged from the midst of the increasingly excited and politicized student body at the University of California at Berkeley a new twice-a-month publication with the ominous title Spider. It reported and commented on the turmoil among student activists, including the affray nicknamed the “filthy speech movement” in parody of the earnest Free Speech Movement of the previous …


All Downhill From Here

downhill copyA friend of mine’s daughter spotted a (semi-) auto-antonym — a word that has two opposing meanings — that was not on my radar: downhill. As she pointed out, the word can be positive when we use it metaphorically to refer to something getting easier from this point forward, and it can be very not positive when we use it metaphorically to refer to something (or everything!) getting worse from this point forward. It’s clearly not a perfect auto-antonym in that the meanings are not exactly semanti…


When I Hear the Word ‘Culture’ …

7113768205_0728435aaf_zThere’s a debate going on in our department at the moment over teacher evaluation forms. The current questionnaire asks students to rate their instructors on whether they “ignited an interest in the language and corresponding culture.” Some people in the English department argue that the question isn’t appropriate for our courses. They have two reasons. First, which culture? Our staff is peppered with Americans, Australians, Brits, Indians, South Africans and even a German or two. And our studen…


Evasive Passives in Texas

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, in her New York Times op-ed “How Texas Teaches History,” levels a grammatical accusation against history textbooks recently approved for use in Texas schools:

The writers’ decisions about how to construct sentences, about what the subject of the sentence will be, about whether the verb will be active or passive, shape the message that slavery was not all that bad.

This is a serious charge. The sheer scale of the Atlantic slave trad…


Midwifing Emojis

1-s1P3JIBwuxsbq2lAD8SOOAI ignore a lot of messages on my computer. Life is easier that way. Recently I ignored an update about texting on my phone that had to do with emojis. For years, I’ve been ignoring the little note when I’m replying to certain emails: “This message must be sent as Unicode.” Go ahead, I tell the computer. Send it that way. Whoever wrote me must have done something in Unicode; it’s not my fault.

But now a connection arises between the emoji-related messages and the Unicode-related messages, and the…


Snapping Fingers

I have recently encountered an endearing trend among high-school and college students, informally as well as in classrooms and in larger gatherings: collective finger-snapping. Once, in the middle of a lecture I delivered at the University of Oxford, someone began expressing approval by snapping her fingers, and within seconds the entire hall followed her. The same thing has happened in class discussions about varieties of love and ways of expressing them. At first the sound was distracting, but…


Being a Pronoun

Chapter 5 of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795) begins thus:

A PRONOUN is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word.

The definition is useless: flagrantly inadequate. Yet after more than two centuries people still repeat it. Chapter 5 of Nevile M. Gwynne’s book Gwynne’s Grammar (2011), like almost all other grammar books addressed to the general public, simply paraphrases Murray:

A pronoun is a word which st…


Morphing the Skeuo

BuggyIs there any frisson more delicious than the learning of a crown wagongreat new word? OK, don’t answer that. But a great new word is a gift, and I received one last week only to find that it had been passed around certain circles for years.

I refer to skeuomorphism, which I heard as skiomorphism on NPR’s All Things Considered in a discussion of action-movie audio features. We are surrounded, it seems, by skeuomorphism, and a heavy debate continues as to its usefulness. Every time you save your work on the …


Just Shoot Me!

JustShootMe_S3_eUnfortunately, shootings in schools and colleges have become so frequent in the United States that several websites have started to take score. The advocacy site Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, for example, maps and lists 152 school shootings in the United States since 2013. In June The Washington Post questioned that number as too high, but whatever the number, news of the shootings has encouraged many colleges and universities to plan how to respond to attacks.

So it happened last week …


Hazing: an Update

The house in Pennsylvania where Michael Deng, a student a Baruch College, died in a fraternity ritual. Photograph by Niko J. Kallianiotis, The New York Times, Redux



Stupid and brutal practices are not unknown in academe.

Among them (and the list may not be small), is the ritual of hazing. The term is less old than I thought. While the Oxford English Dictionary  provides an 1825 definition as “a sound beating, a thrashing,” it isn’t until a bit later in the 19th century that the dictio…