All posts by Ben Yagoda

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Will Rogers Said That. Except He Didn’t.

The other day, a friend forwarded to me an e-mail that had been forwarded to him and 17 other people. It had the look of having been been forwarded many, many times. Here’s how it started:

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It continued with more “gems:”

4. Never miss a good chance to shut up. 5. Always drink upstream from the herd. 6. If you find yourself in a hole, get smart &  STOP your digging immediately. 7. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back into your pocket. 8. There are three kinds of me…

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‘Better’ Days Are Here

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The company I worked in the ’80s employed as chief accountant an older man (probably younger than I am now) named Ed. Ed was known as a card. When you encountered him in the hallway and asked how he was, his answer was always the same:

“Better.”

This was amusing the first time or three, but eventually grew so wearisome that I determined never to say, “How are you?” to him again, but instead make a noninterrogatory greeting (surprisingly difficult to carry off).

Ed has been on my mind lately bec…

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Trump’s ‘Use’ of ‘Quotation Marks’

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American presidents have often been noteworthy writers.  Jefferson was an audacious native version of an 18th-century philosophe. Lincoln’s precise yet visionary style was the subject of a 2008 book by Fred Kaplan. Grant’s plainspoken memoirs were admired by Mark Twain, who, contrary to rumor, didn’t ghostwrite them. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, the first President Roosevelt published 33 books (damn him), and that’s counting the four-volume The Winni…

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Is ‘Mens’ Becoming a Word?

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In deciding whether or not to use, and where to place, an apostrophe after a genitive (or possessive) word, I have always relied on men. That’s men, the word. Here’s what I mean. If I wanted to refer to the school I attended as a youth, there are basically three choices: “a boy’s private school,” “a boys private school,” and “a boys’ private school.”  (“Boy private school” doesn’t sound right.) I’d be able to eliminate the first option quickly, as it implies that the school was designed for or …

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On Dogs Catching Vehicles

Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 2.12.46 PMIn Texas this month for the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, I picked up a copy of the local alternative weekly, The Austin Chronicle. It turned out to be the year-in-review issue. Chosen as Quote of the Year was a sentence uttered by Matt Mackowiak, identified as a “GOP strategist,” on November 10: “Donald Trump is the dog that caught the car.”

Not only was it a great quote, but it was already on my mind: Even before I got to Austin, I felt as if I were hearing versions of it eve…

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How Old Is ‘Gaslighting’?

220px-Gaslight-1944As Anne Curzan noted Monday in her report on the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year, the winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb defined as  to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)

There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special promi…

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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…

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Highbrow Threading

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

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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…

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Who You Calling ‘Snowflake’?

After the presidential election, a Montclair, N.J., store owner invited some like-minded souls to paint a mural on the boarded-up windows of her shop: a multicolored heart and, under a rainbow, the words “Make America Love Again.” The next morning she found that some changes had been made:

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Photo credit: Hakika DuBose, BuzzFeed

In a November 14 article, The Des Moines Register reported:

One Iowa lawmaker has a message for any state university that spends taxpayer dollars on grief counseling for …

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Travails With My ‘Aunt’

Scott Simon says "ahnt"

Simon says “ahnt”

I’ve written before about a trend I first noticed in my students, then observed in the wider world: eschewing the common or standard spelling, pronunciation, or version of a word in favor of one that is or seems fancier or more British. Examples include amongst (instead of the traditional among); whomever instead of whoever in the subjective case (“I’ll give a ticket to whomever wants one”); the British spelling grey (gray) and the faux-British spelling advisor; and pronouncing…