Monthly Archives: March 2017

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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The Fun of It

grammar fun copyWhen I was invited to give a talk at Aquinas College on singular they, I barely finished reading the invitation before saying yes. It never crossed my mind that a lecture on this kind of grammar topic might seem like a recipe for the pedantic or dull, until friends teased me about it later. (As Lingua Franca readers can imagine, given my multiple posts on the topic, I have at least an hour’s worth of thoughts on this pronoun and what is at stake in using it — or prohibiting its use.)

The talk ha…

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Milking a Comma for All It’s Worth

cow and milkThe case of the dairy drivers has captured the world’s attention. From The New York Times to The New Yorker and Language Log, the $10-million award granted (some say) because of a missing comma makes news in which we all — well, maybe not Oakhurst Dairy, in Maine — can delight.

Readers of Lingua Franca may well know the facts already. The workers’ guideline at issue noted that overtime pay would not cover “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for s…

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OK, Okay, Happy 178th Birthday!

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 3.51.37 PMThis Thursday, March 23, 2017, is the 178th birthday of America’s (and the world’s) greatest word.

OK?

Yes, OK is the word. And it was born on Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post on Saturday, March 23, 1839.

Actually, OK was so successful from the beginning that its birthday couldn’t be discerned until more than a century later, when the Columbia University professor Allen Walker Read published a series of articles on OK in the journal American Speech. Perusing nearly every page of every newspaper…

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The ‘Boom!’ Boom

I’ve been seeing this commercial a fair amount:

The thing that strikes me is how Neil Patrick Harris says, “They said it was impossible to have a great-tasting light beer. Boom!”

The onomatopoeic word boom has done an awful lot of service over the years: for example, the nickname of Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, David Rabe’s play In the Boom Boom Room, and the 1968 Liz Taylor-Richard Burton film Boom! In music, there’s Eddie Cantor’s 1929 novelty number “I Faw Down an’ Go Boom” and Randy Newman’…

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Thinking in Mayan

wicked-mayan-hieroglyphs-mexico-cityI am writing this in Mérida, Mexico, where my husband and I lucked out in avoiding the snowstorm that hit the Northeast this week. We are baking in the Yucatán sunshine and visiting nearby Mayan sites. Our second day here, in a city park, we bumped into a professor of Mayan studies at a nearby college who wanted to practice his English. Many of the edifices in Mérida were built from the five pyramids of the Mayan city that once occupied this site, and he pointed out to us a series of hierogly…

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A Dash of Zhouzh

a4395f381cf4a0f070e8acd1cc5ca721I’ve been told that my posts could use a little more zhoozh. If only I knew what it means, and how to spell it! Is it zhush, zhuzh, tjuz, tjuzs, joozh, zoozh, or —? Is that a noun, or maybe a verb? Let’s see. …

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that zhouzh. If Duke Ellington (right) had been a millennial, that’s the word he might have used in place of “swing” — though admittedly there would have been a problem with the rhyme.

The word became prominent a decade ago in the reality TV show Quee…

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‘Done and Done’

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Maria Edgeworth

I texted my wife the other day asking whether she had walked the dog. She answered, “Done and done.” I was like, “Wait — what and what??”

The truth is, the expression, indicating a task accomplished, did have a bit of a familiar ring to it. Going to Google News, I find these examples just in the last 10 days:

  • “I also believe it’s a particularly good match for the free-weekend treatment. You get in, you hopefully have a good time, and you get out. Done and done.” –Destructoid, on…
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Word-Processing Misery

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John Cleese

In a long-forgotten Monty Python sketch, John Cleese is driving a panel truck for the BBC. “I wanted to be in program planning,” he remarks acidly to a colleague, “But unfortunately I have a degree.”

I wanted to work in linguistics. But unfortunately personal computing was invented, and I ended up an amateur software engineer specializing in file format conversion and workarounds for word-processor bugs. I try to do a bit of linguistics in my spare time.

Left to my own devices, I wou…

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Lies, Damned Lies, and Press Releases

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Hokusai’s view of Japan (Image via Wikimedia Commons). Wilde: No such country.

If you aren’t nauseated yet by the outpouring of lies from our elected officials and those that serve them, you’ve got a stronger stomach than I do or you’re not paying attention.

But what is a lie, after all?

Mark Twain gave currency to the bon mot that lies come in three flavors:  lies, damned lies, and statistics. Social scientists have been dining out on that one for a century now.

In his little dialogue “The De…