All posts by Ben Yagoda

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Back to Back ‘Back’

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“Walk back the cat”refers to  a boat’s cat-davit (crane in the bow).

When it comes to forming idioms and slang expressions, few words are more productive than back. It accounts for 12½ pages in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, from back (a weaker drink to go along with a stronger one, as in “a whiskey with a beer back”) to backyard (n. [US] the buttocks, esp. in the context of anal sex.”) In the Beatles catalog alone, there’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “I’ll Be Back,” and “Get Back,” and, among other…

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Brit Thesps Nail Yank Lingo

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Hugh Laurie can talk the talk.

The American characters in Genius — screening earlier this summer in art-house cinemas everywhere — are played by the following actors.

Thomas Wolfe: Jude Law (English)

Maxwell Perkins: Colin Firth (English)

Aline Bernstein: Nicole Kidman (Australian)

Ernest Hemingway: Dominic West (English)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Guy Pearce (Australian)

Zelda Fitzgerald: Vanessa Kirby (English)

I didn’t see the film, but I don’t have to in order to know the American accents are …

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Obviously, That Is an Idiotic Question

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Zappa

Frank Zappa once said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” The same could be said for sports journalism. Except that in sports journalism, there is a whole lot more interviewing. Athletes are continually quizzed about their thoughts, feelings and reactions — in the locker room before and after games, on the field by “sideline reporters,” in more formal studio sit-downs. Coaches typically have presidential-style post…

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I Have No Word

A World War II-era service flag. (Library of Congress.)

The other day, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Karen Meredith, who, along with other parents whose children had died in the military, had signed an open letter to Donald Trump asking him to apologize for his comments about the parents of late Army Capt. Humayun Khan. Meredith observed:

Losing a child, you know — there’s not a name. If you lose your parents, you’re an orphan, but there’s no name for a parent who has lost a child, not…

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Here’s Looking at You, Narcissist

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“Narcissus,” by Caravaggio

There’s one word that seems to doggedly follow the Republican nominee for president, and no, the word isn’t Whuuuuuuhhhh???????

Last week, on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Jon Stewart called Donald Trump “a thin-skinned narcissist.”

The author David Cay Johnston said of Trump in a Guardian article, “He’s a world-class narcissist.” (The title of the article was “Trump: The Making of a Narcissist.”)

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “There’s sort of a gravit…

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English, Italian Style

When I first traveled to Italy, nearly 50 years ago, I don’t recall seeing much public display of English, other than neon signs in Milan’s main square bearing the names of brands like Coca-Cola and Schweppes, and a few familiar phrases in shop windows, such as “Snack Bar” and “Self-service.” I’ve been lucky enough to return to that beautiful country many times since, and I don’t believe there was any change on the this score till the late ’80s, when there appeared T-shirts and sweatshirts beari…

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Is Something the Matter With ‘Black Lives Matter’?

Cartoon by Kris Straub

Cartoon by Kris Straub

 

There are many things I like about the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (which I’ll abbreviate here as BLM). Most important, it addresses what to me is at the very root of racism and therefore of many of our social problems: a deep, usually unexamined feeling among the dominant group, in this case whites, that members of the oppressed group, in this case blacks, are in some way less important, less normal, than they are.

This feeling is the opposite of “white privilege.” It’s…

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Verb-Forming for Fun and Profit

static.playbill.comI recently heard that a gay acquaintance of mine has gotten divorced. I mention his sexual orientation certainly not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s relevant to the matter of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls “two-part back-formed verbs,” aka 2pbfVs. Zwicky has been cataloguing examples of these, at Language Log and on his own website, since 2008, when he wrote about the verb form gay marry, which he had just encountered in a quote on someone else’s blog: “I did an in…

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Farmers and Cowmen in the Language Wars

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“The Old Editor,” John McIntyre

A common, maybe the most common, framing of the conflict between language prescriptivists and descriptivists puts it in personal and psychologized terms: anal-retentive schoolmarms on the one side, unkempt hippies (probably raised by Dr. Spock-toting parents) on the other. That view, while not baseless, is reductive and not especially helpful, leading as it usually does to name-calling and bile rather than to a forward path on mutual ground.

Maybe a more useful le…

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And Loving It

5635292On my short list of core principles is this: Only good things can come from giving people (sincere) compliments.

I acted on it the other day, when I commented via email that I admired a friend’s writing. The person responded, in part:

I think that, as with lovemaking, you can’t really do it well unless you love doing it. I really enjoy coming up with an idea — any old idea, to start with — and writing about it, and tweaking what I’ve written until it seems just right, sometimes through dozens of…