All posts by Geoffrey Pullum


An Ill Wind That No One Blows Good


It’s one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied, and perhaps the hardest to source. A search through the chaos of the web rapidly reveals that it has been speculatively attributed to at least a dozen people: Sir Thomas Beecham, Ambrose Bierce, Bennett Cerf, Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, Laurence McKinney, Ogden Nash, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. Even the musical instrument it describes is also in dispute: I have seen it confidently app…


Orgies, Convoys, and Precision in Word Meanings

convoy-line-2 Apropos of whether the web is changing English, I discussed Choire Sicha’s writing, but not Katy Waldman’s example of it, which concerned the definition of orgy. Sicha riffs humorously on how many participants there must be, and I was reminded of two important but oft-forgotten facts about word meanings.

The first is simply that meanings change swiftly and radically over just a few decades. Fifty years ago dictionaries said orgies were ceremonies honoring ancient Greek deities with ecstatic sin…


The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing langu…


The Anglophone Millstone


I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and…


To Seek Out New Vowels …


Part of my teaching this semester (with my colleague Alice Turk) involves an exploration of space: the space of the remarkable array of speech sounds humans can produce. Consider just the vowel space, for example. Phoneticians map the infinite space of possible vowel qualities by reference to a set of reference points at the edge of vowel space: the final frontier. They’re known as the primary cardinal v…




It was her idea. We had met at a winter solstice, on the 21st of December, and subsequently, as our relationship developed, at some point we started treating every 21st as a kind of mini-anniversary. Except that anniversary wasn’t the right word. Anniversārius in Latin meant “repeated yearly” (ann- “year” + vers- “turn”); diēs anniversāria meant “day returning each year.” I was the linguist, so it was my job, she said, to come up with a better word. And I saw immediately what it should be. Just…


A Postcard From Brno

The Villa Tugendhat in Brno

Brno, Czech Republic — Many months ago I accepted an invitation to give a conference plenary here in central Czechia. (The Czech Republic does have an approved one-word name. People don’t seem to use it much, but I do.) The conference has a discourse-studies theme, and discourse isn’t my usual bag, but I accepted because I was sure that by the time the conference started I would have come up with a suitable talk to give (the usual plenary-invitation gamble). I did not expect shifting fashions i…


The Two Voices of Trump

janusReams have been written about Donald Trump’s astonishing mendacity (see The Washington Post’s one-stop-shopping compilation of his Four-Pinocchio lies, from back in March; five months of shocking fibs and howlers have passed since then). But now some are trying to analyze not just his use of lying as a game plan but his curious bivocalism. Like a rhetorical Tuvan overtone singer, he seems to be able to issue two different messages simultaneously. Nathan Heller, in a September 1 New Yorker articl…


Foul Things of the Night


Eula Biss was a featured author last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And from her I learned something horrifying about certain vile creatures of darkness.

My bibliophile friend Melinda, a visitor from Hawaii, wanted to attend the session on Eula’s much-praised study of vaccination, On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014). It was sold out. Demand for seats is intense. Cognoscenti book their choice of events (only four per person allowed) on the day in spring when the program is ann…


Machine-to-Human Communication: Nobody Cares


Ticketless illegals trapped inside tram

I continue to have bad experiences with the machines that purport to talk to me in everyday life. Recently I took one of the new trams to the Edinburgh airport. The computer-controlled doors closed and the tram moved off. As it glided away, a smooth prerecorded voice told us: “Please note that tickets must be purchased, or cards validated, before boarding the tram.” A bit late for that! Couldn’t the system have been programmed to supply that crucial inform…