Category Archives: Journalism


A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…


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:

Screen Shot 2017-02-10 at 9.24.44 AM

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…


Hypotheticals vs. Contrary-to-Fact

situational-hypothetical-questionsSomehow I am getting news announcements from The New York Times on my iPhone. I don’t know how I elected this option, but it’s interesting to see what they choose to send me and how they choose to word it. Here’s what floated in on the morning of January 17:

18 million would lose insurance and premiums would soar in 2018 if Obamacare is partially repealed, a congressional study says.

Now, I know we get our panties in an unnecessary twist when it comes to things like the conditional tense and the…


Highbrow Threading

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


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…


Not Normal

81e48716ddf4ca3d44ade161a8930d2dI’m a very recent convert to the idea of normal.

My allergy to the word has come from two separate strands. One is a trend I’ve noticed among students for at least 20 years, wherein they apply the word normal to forms they consider standard. My creative-writing students, for instance, decry John Barth’s as being “not normal” stories. My literature students ask if I want them to write a “normal” essay. I want to shake them by the shoulders and say, “There is no normal story! There is …


Sexual-Abuse Gangs and Racism

Back in August, a huge public inquiry into child sexual abuse in Britain lost its third leader when Judge Lowell Goddard resigned as chair. The Times reported her as having remarked that the reason Britain has so many pedophiles is “because it has so many Asian men.” That assertion (which she firmly denies making) has been condemned as racist. I wish people would use the dictionary a bit more. racism_entry Racism is a thesis — the single greatest ideological evil in human history, in my view. It holds tha…


T Time: Real Money

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” That’s one of the best-known sayings around Capitol Hill, generally attributed to Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican who served as minority leader in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the researchers Barry Popik and Fred Shapiro have shown, however, Dirksen didn’t originate the saying, which goes back to the Depression of the 1930s. But he did popularize it as a way to satirize government extravagance.


Witticisms, Plagiarism, and Language History

Not the originator

Not the originator.

My post last week, wondering who first dismissed the oboe as an ill wind, elicited a slew of interesting comments and private emails. Let me try to pull all the information together in a more organized form.

Jeff DeMarco led off the comments, noting that the oboe jibe turned up in Laurence McKinney’s humorous poetic introduction to the orchestra, People of Note. (That’s a pun. Geddit?) Published January 1, 1940, that book would appear to predate “Anatole of Paris,” the song…


Nudgy Down the Lane


Steven Pinker: No claims about what a word “means” or “doesn’t mean.” (Image by Rebecca Goldstein via Wikimedia Commons)

A verb my mother was fond of, especially in relation to me, was nudgy. I’ll use it in a sentence — “Stop nudgying me — we’ll go for ice cream as soon as I finish what I have to do.” It could also be intransitive — “If you keep nudgying, you’ll be in trouble.” There was also a noun form: “Don’t be a nudge.” You sense the pattern. (And by the way, nudge does not rhyme with budge…


Lies, Damn Lies, and Trump

Back in 2012, when presidential politics was sane, I wrote a Lingua Franca post called “The Word the Media Won’t Use.” The word was lie. And (speaking as a journalism professor), I approved of the media’s reluctance to use it.

To assert that someone has lied is to say that he or she has uttered, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, “a false statement made with intent to deceive.” The “false statement” part is the proper province of journalism, and the media is on that case. The…