Category Archives: Rhetoric

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English Grammar Day

propriety

This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library in London, and people have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Yea…

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The Half-Life of Metaphors

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The adjective weaponized — meaning “adapted for use as a weapon, equipped with weapons,” or more broadly, “militarized” dates only to 1956, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when the following was published in the journal International Security: “The fourth was an air burst of a boosted fission weapon using a U-235 core which obtained an energy yield of approximately 251 kt. It was probably a weaponized version of the 1953 boosted configuration reduced to a m…

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The Importance of Being a Prince

princephilip

The thing about being a prince is that you can say anything you feel like, and they don’t make you resign. In a democracy it’s different: You can be laid low politically for one thoughtless remark.

Do you remember Trent Lott’s lighthearted remarks at a convivial birthday party on December 5, 2002? “When Strom Thurmond ran for president,” said Lott of the birthday boy, “we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these probl…

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The Risky Business of Deadpan Humor

ChinoDino

Sometimes on the first day of April, someone at Language Log will inject a trace of levity into what can be a fairly nerdy blog by posting a joke news item about language or linguistics. This year there was no such effort, so (since I occasionally contribute to Language Log and felt the urge to provoke mirth creeping up on me) I created a new genre: the retrospective metahoax. But I must be honest: It failed catastrophically with at least one reader. The case is really quite instructive. In thi…

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For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Said.

babyshoes-l300In this space a couple of weeks back, I wrote about a mass email containing 25 Will Rogers “quotations.” As I explained in the post, I am virtually certain none of them were actually said or written by Rogers. Now, after reading Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, I realize that the misattributions were a result of “Host” — one of the 10 mechanisms by which, according to O’Toole, so much false attribution happens nowadays. He explains that …

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‘Done and Done’

250px-Maria_Edgeworth_by_John_Downman_1807

Maria Edgeworth

I texted my wife the other day asking whether she had walked the dog. She answered, “Done and done.” I was like, “Wait — what and what??”

The truth is, the expression, indicating a task accomplished, did have a bit of a familiar ring to it. Going to Google News, I find these examples just in the last 10 days:

  • “I also believe it’s a particularly good match for the free-weekend treatment. You get in, you hopefully have a good time, and you get out. Done and done.” –Destructoid, on…
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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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Seeing Through the Gaslight

manipulate-e1462292001507A confession: Before this political season, I had not understood the term gaslighting, so eloquently explained on Friday by my colleague Ben Yagoda. I may have heard it, but only as a conniving manipulation by some politician of whom the writer didn’t approve. Not knowing its provenance, I thought maybe it had something to do with leakage from old-fashioned lighting, such that those who inhaled it sort of lost their minds.

In fact, as Ben points out, the term gaslighting originated with Patrick …

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Where Are the Happiness Boys?

Professor with bubbles coming out of pipeExactly 58 years ago today (I write on December 17, 2016), E.B. White wrote a letter of protest to his editor, J.G. Case, who had been trying to get him to take some grammar advice and modify some of the proscriptive ukases in a usage book that White was revising. White wouldn’t yield an inch to what he called “the Happiness Boys, or, as you call them, the descriptivists”:

I cannot, and will-shall not, attempt to adjust … to the modern liberal of the English Department, the anything-goes fellow….

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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…