Category Archives: Words

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For Want of a Copy Editor the Sense Was Lost

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Yuri Matiyasevitch in 1969

When a Russian mathematician collaborates with a French computer scientist on a paper published by Elsevier in the Netherlands, what language do they choose?

English, of course. Unsuitable it may be, but it’s the unavoidable language of science these days.

And that means Elsevier will need to provide expert editors to assist non-native-speaking authors, right?

Wrong. Elsevier’s two and a half billion dollars of annual revenue (only about a billion of it operating profi…

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Futurist Shock

future-shock-by-alvin-toffler-1970-1-728Half a century ago, Alvin Toffler published a book “about what happens to people when they are overwhelmed by change.”  Future Shock became a 1970 chart-topper.

Toffler’s phrase future shock tells us something of the history of cultural anxiety. It also speaks to our response to change now in 2017, the very adolescence of the 21st century, when to be overwhelmed by change has become the standing condition of modernity.

Toffler’s book begat an industry, lodged in no small part in eager business…

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Trumping the Extremists

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Barry Goldwater

O tempora, o mores!

The language of politics used to be so straightforward.

More than 50 years later, I can still hear the echo of Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

Goldwater lost the presidential election to Lyndon Johnson that year, by a considerable margin. You can argue what Goldwater …

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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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How Not to Teach Chinese

Chinese_characters_logoVictor Mair wrote on Language Log last month about a test in what appears to have been a third-year class in Chinese at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School, in New York. What made it news in China (see in particular this story in the South China Morning Post) was that the test involved giving synonyms for a number of words written with Chinese characters so rare and archaic that many Chinese people were prepared to admit on social-media sites that they would not have been able to pass the …

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Sewer Trouble

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Rome’s Cloaca Maxima, shown by a red line: not the sewist’s realm.

A friend writes that she’s looking forward to putting energies into being a sewist, a word that made me reach for the Oxford English Dictionary, the smelling salts not being handy. While the OED was silent, the subject, and the term, have recently been discussed on the Grammarphobia blog.

Sewist seems to be a relatively new coinage — a decade or so old — providing an alternative to sewer, meaning one who sews, either professional…

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A Language Museum?

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Franklin School in Washington, D.C. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The question mark was to get your attention. As of last Wednesday, we can change it to a period: A language museum.

On January 25, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development in Washington, D.C., announced that the historic Franklin School has been approved for development into a museum called Planet Word. The project is spearheaded by — and privately funded by — the philanthropist and former reading …

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Pussies and Appropriation

womens-march-pink-1024x676They were hard to ignore, those square-shaped pink knit caps carpeting the Mall in Washington and flooding the streets of New York and other major cities around the world. Weeks before the Women’s March, when I first saw organizers sporting these things, I thought they looked stupid, an awkward flop of pink atop the head. Then a crafty friend knit me one, and it not only kept me warm through a gray, blustery day in Washington; it empowered me.

The Pussy Hat Project is a classic example of approp…

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An OK Day in March

imagesOn March 23, 1839, a funny little abbreviation that would greatly affect all our lives was born. Though it was destined for influence and long life, its beginning was anything but auspicious. It appeared Page 2 of the Boston Morning Post in a long humorous story about Boston’s Anti-Bell-Ringing-Society, a group of young men who opposed legislation prohibiting the ringing of dinner bells. (That’s right. Don’t ask.)

In the midst of that complicated, supposedly humorous story, the author and editor…

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Call It Macaroni

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Just in time to palliate the itch to add my learned commentary to Kellyanne Conway’s remarkable coinage of a hot candidate for Word of the Year 2017, “alternative facts,” the snail mail this week brought from the Missouri University of Science & Technology, in Rolla, the latest issue of Gerald Cohen‘s Comments on Etymology. As is frequently the case, Cohen is not only editor but author of the half-dozen articles in the 32 pages of Vol. 46, No. 3-4 for December 2016-17. …