Monthly Archives: December 2016


Hashtag Christmas and Emoji New Year!

emojiBack in 1990, the internet was young, and print still ruled, as it had since the days of Johannes Gutenberg. It followed then that the American Dialect Society, introducing the notion of a Word of the Year, looked to print for candidates. The winner was the sarcastic political term bushlips, referring to President Bush’s failure to keep his promise of “Read my lips — no new taxes.”

Fast forward a quarter century to 2016, and the digital revolution has had its effect on our language. Not only ha…


A Means to a Question

means copyLast week I was writing a memo (as I am known to do when I am wearing my administrative hat), and I suddenly found myself contemplating the grammar of a phrase I had never before given a moment’s thought to. (And no, it did not involve a preposition stranded at the end of a sentence–I already know how I feel about that.) Here is the sentence that captured my attention:

I want to make sure that the [X] fund is on your radar as a means to support your research.

“A means to?” I thought. “Or a…


The ‘Pajama’ Bane

Who says people over 60 don’t move quickly? I certainly do, when I’m listening to NPR and I hear the first word or two of a promotional announcement for the Pajamagram company. My arm shoots over to turn off the radio in a nanosecond or less — so annoying do I find the way the announcer pronounces the second syllable of pajama like the thing you spread on toast. (That’s “jæm” in the International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA].) Everyone knows that, following from the original Urdu, it’s supposed to rh…


Where Are the Happiness Boys?

Professor with bubbles coming out of pipeExactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:

I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow….


Highbrow Threading

The following ad appeared in my Facebook feed the other day:


It put me in mind of my favorite episode of my favorite segment on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, “Share a Little Tea with Goldie.” In “Share a Little Tea” (as I wrote in this space last year),

a wide-eyed hippie, played by Leigh French, found various things to say “Oh, wow” about. I have been thinking about one particular episode in which Goldie excitedly demonstrated to viewers an invention she’d come up with. She took out…



doll-s_house_posterHow many psychoanalysts does it take to transform a lightbulb? One — but the lightbulb really has to want to transform.

What’s happened to the verb transform? Has it undergone some transformation when I was looking away?

Here’s a typical sentence in what I think is the most up-to-date campus usage:

“The character of Nora transforms in the last act of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”

Nora does not transform some thing into something else. There’s no thing here that is being subjected to Nora’s powers…


Make American Accents Great Again


Image by Jenny Chang, courtesy of BuzzFeed*

A recent Daily Briefing email newsletter from The Chronicle of Higher Education to its subscribers included this snippet of news from a sample of faculty members who mailed in about things they have learned from student feedback on their courses:

Shaun Bowler, a political-science professor at the University of California at Riverside, wrote that he had received a course evaluation reading, “His accent is a problem. Why can’t we have teachers who speaks…


‘Bigly’ Is Huge

maxresdefaultYes, it didn’t take long for a reader of my Friday post to recognize what I meant when I hinted about my favorite word of the year 2016: ”It’s big.” Betsy Smith, retired from Cape Cod Community College, correctly deduced that my choice, for now at least, is bigly.

Why bigly? Because it contains so much in so little. It has a long history, yet until now was nearly obsolete. Its etymology is disputed. And most important, it expresses the state of mind of the winning candidate for the U.S. presiden…


Won’t He Do It!

hqdefaultThe writer Tayari Jones recently posted a question on Facebook about a phrase she’s planning to use in her forthcoming novel: “Won’t He do it!” I immediately felt the interest of, say, a cat in catnip, and followed along. Here’s what I learned, and what it made me think about.

First, “Won’t He do it!” is a statement, not a question. It’s a statement of faith in God, and it’s been popular, apparently, for several decades as a call and response in black churches. Jones’s initial concern arose wh…


A Radical Contranym

webradishI’ve been studying Italian, a language that gets me thinking about etymology even more than I usually do. The other day I learned that the word for root  is radice. “Funny,” I said to my husband as we were fixing dinner that night. “It’s like a cross between radish and radical.” I was — I swear to you — chopping salad as I said this. I held up a radish to examine. “Well, duh,” I said. “It’s a root.”

Linking radical to radice felt more complicated. In mathematics, it makes sense as the root, say,…