Monthly Archives: September 2016


Good Night, September 22!

resize_1379695571We’re approaching that time next week when the earth under the sun reaches momentary equality with everyone and everything, a moment known to the cognoscenti as the equinox.

On the equinox, to put it simply, everyone on earth gets 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night. To put it complexly, there are all sorts of minor exceptions, especially at the equator, where days and nights are close to equal anyhow all year round.

But this is a comment on the word itself, not a treatise on astronomy. S…


How Cliché Can You Get?


George Jessel in “The Jazz Singer”

I got the first crop of student writing assignments back the other day, and I tweeted out, as I do, some general observations. One was that 100 percent of youth now use cliché for the adjective form of cliché, as opposed to the traditional clichéd. E.g., “That’s so cliché.”

The redoubtable Jan Freeman, longtime language columnist for The Boston Globe, tweeted back, “Yep. I was resigned to it already in 2009,” and linked to a piece of hers that included a refere…


Literary Judgment, Literary Luck

0179f6077adad6796a3eac8bfd6cb67aTwenty years ago this month, I was in New Orleans to receive an award for my writing. I’ve been thinking about that moment as we return to classes. Whatever subject you teach, you most likely find yourself in the position of judging the quality of students’ prose. Indeed, for most of us, the grades we award at the end of the term will depend largely on how well our students express themselves in writing.

Here’s how the award I received in 1996 came about. I had published a couple of books in t…


A Postcard From Brno

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno

Brno, Czech Republic — Many months ago I accepted an invitation to give a conference plenary here in central Czechia. (The Czech Republic does have an approved one-word name. People don’t seem to use it much, but I do.) The conference has a discourse-studies theme, and discourse isn’t my usual bag, but I accepted because I was sure that by the time the conference started I would have come up with a suitable talk to give (the usual plenary-invitation gamble). I did not expect shifting fashions i…


That in Aleppo Once …


Shakespeare’s Othello recalls having killed an enemy in Aleppo.


When, in an MSNBC interview with Mike Barnicle on Morning Joe, the Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson tripped and fell over Aleppo — “And what is Aleppo?” — he provoked a mystified response, “You’re kidding!” and then Johnson’s fate-sealing “No.” High-minded groans.  Twittersphere code red. Facebook posts asking whether Johnson thought Aleppo might be, say, an acronym. Americans Like Excusing Po…


Surrogates on Parade


Bob Einstein as the Surrogate in  Arrested Development.

On Tuesday, Bloomberg reported that the Trump campaign was facing a “surrogate challenge” after an African-American Trump supporter, who had previously tweeted out a cartoon of Hillary Clinton in blackface, walked out of a TV interview when asked about misleading biographical statements on his website.

This was only the latest surrogate incident, Bloomberg reported:

A rash of “taco truck” memes broke out after Marco Gutierrez, founder …


The Specter of the ‘Alt-Right’

Pepe TrumpI’m feeling a bit slimed as I type this post. Assuming you’ve come here in innocence, I hope you can finish the next few paragraphs without the slime’s smearing onto you.

It began, as many instances of sliming do, with curiosity, following Hillary Clinton’s August 25 speech denouncing Donald Trump’s ties to the so-called alt-right movement. Living as I do in a bubble, I had never heard the term alt-right before. In fact, my acquaintance with alt as a prefix was more or less limited to the Alt ke…


The Two Voices of Trump

janusReams have been written about Donald Trump’s astonishing mendacity (see The Washington Post’s one-stop-shopping compilation of his Four-Pinocchio lies, from back in March; five months of shocking fibs and howlers have passed since then). But now some are trying to analyze not just his use of lying as a game plan but his curious bivocalism. Like a rhetorical Tuvan overtone singer, he seems to be able to issue two different messages simultaneously. Nathan Heller, in a September 1 New Yorker articl…


This Rule I Learned and Then Unlearned

thumbnail_this what copyLast week, as I was making final revisions to an article for an edited volume, I worked through all the very helpful comments from one of the volume editors in the margins of the document. I accepted all the suggested emendations until I got to this sentence:

If students can also look at dictionaries for world varieties (e.g., Cassidy and Le Page; Muller, Wright, and Silva), this can enrich discussions of the role dictionaries continue to play in standardizing — and legitimizing — new variet…


My 20/20 Prediction

Eye-chartWelcome, Class of 2020! The class with 20/20 vision!

Yes, and welcome to the play on “2020″ that is sure to bedevil this year’s cohort of first-year students, not just till Commencement 2020 but for the rest of their lives as alumni. Lake Superior State University, get ready to put it at the top of your annual list of banned words.

It’s beginning already. Just a few examples:

The logo over photos of the incoming class at New York University Shanghai is “2020 Vision.” Bryn Mawr is using the same.