Monthly Archives: April 2017

by

Who Really Said That?

???????????????????????????????????????????????????For a time in my 20s, I worked as “assistant to the publisher” at Schocken Books, now part of Random House. Like anyone with that sort of glorified-secretary position, I took on a lot of tasks that weren’t part of the job description. At one point, my boss realized that a charming “book of days” desk calendar, with clever quotes and illustrations — for which he had purchased publishing rights and print-ready films from a British publisher — lacked the permissions to reproduce most …

by

Suffixery

Screen Shot 2017-04-27 at 9.48.21 AM

Letter to the editor, “The Guardian,” April 22, 2017

Kory Stamper, associate editor of Merriam-Webster and author of the new book Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air on April 19. I turned to the transcript of the interview to look up something I heard, and I found: “So in speech, I don’t police people’s speech. I think that’s jerkery (ph) of the highest order when people do that.”

I love the ph. It means that the transcriber was not familiar with jerkery, f…

by

That’s Spicey With an ‘E’

170205122517-snl-melissa-mccarthy-sean-spicer-00010505-1024x576It began innocently enough, our sense of the word spicy.  The Oxford English Dictionary starts us off pleasingly, with a reference to a 1568 herbal: “the shel smelleth well, and is spycye, not onely in smell, but also in taste.”

The spice islands, the fragrance of spices, that old collection of things in the cabinet near the stove that you save just in case there’s a recipe that calls for epazote, ajwain, and fenugreek.

Spice is something we were once told made life interesting, as in that weary…

by

Who’s a Patriot Now?

401bc7aa260cdfbddbeaeacdeefa4“Je veux être le président des patriotes face à la menace des nationalistes”: “I want to be the president of all patriots against the nationalist threat.”

That’s what Emmanuel Macron, the front-runner in the recent French election, said during his first-round-victory speech. Those two words, patriot and nationalist, are deep points of argument among political scientists, but for most of us, the distinctions get a bit murky and sometimes self-contradictory. When I was growing up, in 1960s America…

by

Truly Weighty Words

IMG_2138Once upon a time, way back in the 20th century, newspapers were not electronic but mechanical. Last week I reminisced about the mechanical tools used by reporters and copy editors: the standard manual typewriter, powered by the writer’s own fingers; half-sheets of newsprint rolled through the typewriter and taking imprints of the keys; and a No. 1 soft black Mirado pencil for marking paragraphs and making corrections.

But one big step was still needed before the marked-up typewriter copy, light …

by

The Risky Business of Deadpan Humor

ChinoDino

Sometimes on the first day of April, someone at Language Log will inject a trace of levity into what can be a fairly nerdy blog by posting a joke news item about language or linguistics. This year there was no such effort, so (since I occasionally contribute to Language Log and felt the urge to provoke mirth creeping up on me) I created a new genre: the retrospective metahoax. But I must be honest: It failed catastrophically with at least one reader. The case is really quite instructive. In thi…

by

Mamma Mia!

us-afghanistan_8a340064-2074-11e7-beb7-f1cbdf0743d8Last week, the United States dropped its MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast, on a network of tunnels in Afghanistan, killing approximately 94 people who have been reported thus far as ISIS militants. Of course, Massive Ordnance Air Blast is not how the press has been referring to this largest nonnuclear device; it (or she) is referred to as the Mother of All Bombs — which may, in fact, have been the original moniker, with the more official-sounding term a back-formation from this Mom Bomb idea.

by

Weighty Words of Yesteryear

Vintage-40s-UNDERWOOD-Standard-Manual-Typewriter-Art-Deco-_57Nowadays, thanks to the internet (which has lost its capital letter in the AP stylebook, for becoming too ordinary) and our numerous computers, smartphones, and other devices, our words flit from device to device to publication as light as their weight in electrons.

But as we veterans of the 20th century know, it wasn’t always that way. There was a time, back before anyone had thought of cluttering our (literal) desktops with computers, when our words were always hard copy, beginning with ink on…

by

Adverbs and United Airlines

flythefriendlyskiesYou might think nothing more remained to be said about United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to St Louis on Sunday, April 9. Not so. The coverage left key facts of the case misreported, and the most interesting linguistic aspects completely unnoticed.

Sean Davis at The Federalist sensibly dug out United’s contract of carriage and read it. But even he failed to note how bad its use of English is.

The volitional subclass of adverbs used as act-related adjuncts are the adverbs like accidentally,…

by

The Case of the Missing ‘Miss’

156803-004-45406991

Philip Roth: not the sort of person you would call “Phil.” (Photo: Joe Tabbacca, AP)

I recently RSVP’d for an event at my university and was asked to choose the “title” I preferred. No surprise in the choices that were offered, but I was surprised by a choice that was not.

Dr., Mr., Mrs., and Ms. were the options. Missing — no pun intended — was Miss. I was well aware that Ms. has been commonly used as a courtesy title since the ’70s, but I was a bit puzzled by this suggestion that one of the te…