All posts by Ilan Stavans


‘Sudden Death’ at El Mundial

Brasilian Futbol soccer fan face paint from Brazil photo by Monte Isom

I love the expression “sudden death.” It refers to a FIFA tie-breaking rule last used in 2002, when South Korea and Japan hosted the World Cup, but most of matches in this year’s El Mundial, as the games are known to Spanish-language viewers of Univision, all felt like sudden death, at least in the round of 16, which concluded Tuesday. (By the way, Univision’s newscast has been far superior to ESPN’s, at least at the level of wordplay.) The Netherlands-Mexico match was a nail-biter (I…


The Fossilized Book

Books are no longer books, at least not what was meant by book a generation ago: an extensive work made of letters that build sentences shaped into paragraphs, written on pages glued together and bound in covers. That, at least, still describes the yellowish copy I bought in 1985, on the New York City streets, of Fahrenheit 451, which sits tightly in my personal library.

But these days, my personal library grows dramatically slower than it used to; I don’t buy print books as often as before.



What’s in a Name?

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet. And Romeo, a few lines later, replies, “My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself.”

Onomatology, also known as onomastics, is the discipline that studies proper names. In the United States, that discipline borders on extravagance, although it never ceases to amaze me how, in spite of the rapid transformation of American society, things remain constant.

Is there something to be said about the names of our students? …


An Aha! Moment

Fede, a Venezuelan student of mine, whenever he greets me, starts with “Epa, Ilan.”

Epa is an interjection, an expression of emotion, that is, frankly, almost impossible to translate. In English, what Fede means is a combination of hey, whoa, and howdayado, that is, a slangy form of greeting as well as a manifestation of surprise.

I love that he displays emotion so effusively—and so fluidly. I’m also puzzled by the difficulty I had in the previous paragraph to convey it in translation. That …


On Clarity


What do John Boehner and Rachel Maddow have in common?
Image: Screen shot from MSNBC, via The Blaze

One cannot but be dismayed by the extent to which pollution of thought is endemic in our culture.

The illness is ubiquitous: in Washington, in academe, on the radio and TV, among activists. Being clear, explaining oneself lucidly, seems to be an endangered form of human behavior. Was clarity ever better regarded? Or is the current attitude toward it a constant in history? One could blame the educat…




Image courtesy Tufts Observer

Our ABC seems to have changed dramatically before our very eyes and no one is making a fuss. Not that it would matter.

It used to be that the alphabet was a sequence of 26 letters, from A to Z. The letter A came first for reasons that, as far as I gather, are arbitrary. Other than historical loyalty, there is no explanation—neither phonetic nor graphic—why it is at the beginning. The aleph in Hebrew starts the alphabet, and other Middle Eastern alphabets, such as th…


The Sex Class

550px-Censored_rubber_stamp.svgIn the last few weeks, the topic of my class “Love” has been romantic love, and, within that category, the language of sex.

I told students that by language I implied a standardized system of signs that serves to express a wide range of meanings and that by sex—not sexuality but sex—I implied intercourse, that is, sexual intercourse. Sex, then, has its own grammar. Could we analyze that grammar together?

For starters, I asked why, when referring to the act of having sex, we say to make love? Do …



“Can I be spermed?” a student asked in an email last year, requesting to forgo an extra assignment. I laughed. At the bottom of the message, it read: “Sent from my iPhone.”

In less than five minutes, the student wrote back. “Apologies, Prof. It wasn’t me but A-C. I really meant ‘spared’.” And she added: “It won’t happy again.”

This time I just smiled.

The complications brought on by technology are countless. And in them, the opportunities for Freudian slips never stop. Are we in charge, or has a…


Do Chicanos Have an Inferiority Complex?

010006-MexAmericanThe etymology of Chicano is surrounded in mystery. I’ve seen its roots traced to Nahuatl, specifically to the term Mexica, as the people encountered by Hernán Cortés and his soldiers conquering Tenochtitlán in the early quarter of the 16th century where known. In Spanish, the word is pronounced Meshika: the x functions as sh. Mexico, as a nation, opts to look at the Mexicas as their defining ancestors. Curiously, when first registering the name, the missionaries spelled it Méjico, with a j. It t…


The Tenure Code

At Amherst College, where I’ve taught for more 20 years (oy, gevalt!), a couple of years ago a tenure case was brought down in part because of the word “solid.” I’ve put it in quote marks in part because tenure cases are multiheaded monsters: Their rise or fall as a result of countless factors. In this particular one, one of the factors—and, ultimately, a stumbling block—was this much-contested word.

An outside reviewer had used it to describe a candidate’s publications record. It became a sub…