Monthly Archives: February 2016


Being an Interjection


Facebook was in the news last week for introducing a choice of five emoji you can use to tag a post or other online object that inspires some emotion in you. Formerly, your only recourse was the thumbs-up icon of the Like button: You could tag an item to say “Like!,” which might mean you agreed with it, you were amused by it, you were moved emotionally by it, you hope others will look at it, or any number of other things. But now, if you hover the mouse cursor over the Like button, you get a ch…


Missing the Point

1200x630_323218_french-language-revolution-in-france The news from France is grim. Whether you adore France or have a love-hate relationship with all things French, one thing we’ve all been able to agree on is the spelling of  the words hôtel and août.

But l’Académie française, guardian of the French vocabulary, has agreed that la langue can do without  the pointy lid that sits atop certain words.

The plan to remove the circumflex has sparked outcry and bemused commentary. A New York Times op-ed beat me to the punch with its title, “Hats Off to…


‘Room’ With a Point of View


Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in the film version of Room.

If you heard I had posted on Lingua Franca about Emma Donoghue’s Room, you might justifiably expect that I’d written about the way  the narrator of the novel, 5-year-old Jack, uses language. Jack’s entire life has taken place in an 11-by-11 foot room, where he is confined with his mother. (That situation becomes apparent in the first few pages of the book, so this is not a spoiler.) And I could well have written such a post, as Don…


All the Changes We Do Not Notice

3d47d20b2d9db0e4f86cbab4a5c19fbbI have been thinking a lot about button-down shirts recently. This is after many years of giving them — or at least giving the word for them — very little thought at all.

My mulling was sparked by an email from Dave Carlyon, an astute observer of language, who pointed out that something seems to be afoot with the term button-down shirt. Does the description refer to the collar or the entire shirt? The answer: Originally it was about whether the collar buttoned down, but now for many of us, it is…


Leaps in the Dark: the Discourse of Brexit

EUJust when you need maximally careful use of the uniquely human gift of language, everything goes to hell and people start throwing clichés around like ninja stars. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has just called a referendum for June 23 in which the electorate will address this question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

And immediately everything is slogans and fearmongering and soundbites and similes.

The wording of the questi…


Plotting Punctuation

Huck Finn

Adam Calhoun’s heat map of punctuation in Huckleberry Finn.

Anyone who writes seriously pays attention to punctuation; we know that. That devilish comma in the Second Amendment has spawned countless 21st-century opinion columns despite its obvious roots in 18th-century conventions. But only this past week did I discover a tiny branch of study devoted only to punctuation patterns.

Adam Calhoun, an eclectic neuroscientist at Princeton, found himself drawn to the artist Nicholas Rougeux’s series of…


And the Winner Is . . .

Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 7.11.15 PMThere’s nothing like a dramatic pause to heighten the excitement of an announcement. As we’ll see next weekend, that’s how the Oscars are announced. The presenter declares “And the winner is … ” or “and the Oscar goes to … ” and then pauses to open the envelope and read the name. If the presenter has trouble opening or reading, so much the better. Every second increases the suspense.

This works too in shows like Project Runway and The Great Food Truck Race. Sometimes the pause comes just in time…


Polysemy and Maturity

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 4.03.36 PM

Polysemous pachyderms (Tontan Travel)

Harvard is considering whether the long-established term “House Master” should be changed, because a group of Latino students has protested that it reminds them of the tradition of slave masters.

Professor Steven Pinker, of the same parish, made a Twitter comment on the controversy that has been retweeted hundreds of times already and deserves to be:

We should be teaching students: 1 All words have >1 meaning.. 2. Mature adults resist taking pointless offens...


Me, Myself, I, and Yourselves Too

29325A reader writes, “I received an email just now with the following in it: ‘A technician and myself went to check out the computer in SHM2012.’ I have noticed this a lot (our kids do it) — the unwillingness to use ‘I,’ and the substitution of ‘myself.’: definitely a feature of changing language.”

The use of the reflexive pronoun in a nonreflexive way seems to be a growing phenomenon, but the data are mixed. Among the and -self phrases, and myself occurs most frequently, according to the Corpus of …


A Plague of Plagiarism

plagiarism[1]In academe, as well as in the republic of letters, plagiarism remains the unforgivable sin. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this dreadful word (and the activity for which it stands) has been in our language for four centuries, and further that it derives ultimately from “classical Latin plagiarius, person who abducts the child or slave of another, kidnapper, seducer, also a literary thief.”

Kidnapper of someone’s beloved words! No wonder we react so strongly.

The handbooks warn again…