Category Archives: Words

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Of Cans and Cabooses

Tyler Silvest, via Flicker

On Monday, a  Colorado jury found that a Denver disc jockey had in fact committed assault and battery against Taylor Swift during a pre-concert photo session in 2013. Some dirtbags like the DJ apparently feel that celebrities can be groped — a form of sexual assault — with impunity, and the main takeaway of the trial was the good news that the dirtbag in this case could not.

The second takeaway is that mainstream journalism apparently does not possess an adequate term …

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Getting Oriented

Alan Klim, Creative Commons

The beginning of term: orientation. It’s the first exposure to life at college, an induction into campus culture, the downloading of rules and regulations, and for some a festival of celebratory distractions.

Whatever shape it takes on your campus, orientation is, to use the name we give to the very last event of a college education, a commencement.

It’s also a moment to confront our obligations.

Like a series of inoculations before a journey to a remote somewhere, or…

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Why a Ham Sandwich?

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When my brother and I were teenagers, we liked to practice non sequiturs, irrelevant statements that seemed to beggar any attempt at response. One of our favorites was “My father drives with both feet.” (This happened to be true, to the detriment of our car’s brakes.) Another was “I had a ham sandwich for lunch.” For reasons that elude me now, we found it hilarious to lob these tiny verbal grenades into conversations, particularly with elders.

The ham sandwich has made a recent appearance, than…

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‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ Speaks!

Dare Image by Ellen

Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler

 

If you read my posts, you may be familiar by now with the grand six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2013, but continuing to live beyond that date in quarterly updates on the internet.

Now DARE  has come to life in another way. It’s not just in writing that the dictionary tells us about the different ways we talk in this vast country. DARE  is speaking up!

Now we can hear the recorded voices of some 1,800 people in 1,…

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The Notorious ‘Notorious’

Speak of the devil.

No sooner had I written about The New York Times’s unfortunate decision to cut back on copy editors than the sort of error appeared on the Times’s mobile feed that a good copy editor could have caught in his or her sleep. It’s in the slightly grayed-out subhead below:

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The error, as all good sticklers have already noted, is the use of the word notoriety to mean “fame,” when in actuality, notoriety is fame for doing one very bad thing or repeatedly doing moderately bad things….

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Being a Determinative

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The determinatives of English are the little words that occur at the beginning of many noun phrases, often as a matter of grammatical necessity: words like the indefinite article a and its prevowel alter ego an, the definite article the (notoriously the most frequent word in English running text, as every cryptanalyst knows), and a bunch of other words like all, enough, every, few, little, many, much, no, some, and the demonstratives this and that. And in addition, all of the numerals. (The wor…

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Hemingway’s Cuban English

EH Cuba correos2

I can speak and read French but cannot write it; nor Italian, nor German. But can write Spanish. English sometimes too, maybe. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

Here, in the house, we talk Spanish always. –Ernest Hemingway, 1950

“I have often wondered what I should do with the rest of my life,” wrote Ernest Hemingway aboard a steamship, just after leaving Paris and divorcing his first wife. “Now I know — I shall try and reach Cuba.” The writer, born 118 years ago Friday, would go on to spend ove…

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Hohumland

homeland-tv-show

Homeland.
Has this word really been with us for nearly 15 years?
Yes, it has. Congress voted in November 2002 to bring this rarely used word to our attention by establishing the United States Department of Homeland Security.

For naming the new department, Homeland was an excellent choice: little used in everyday speech or writing, but a transparent word which had been in the English language for some time and whose meaning was easy to discern: a land that was someone’s home.

After that, homelan…

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‘The Americans Have No Adverbs’

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I still remember the awful woman I met at a reception during an English Speaking Union meeting on George Street, Edinburgh, in 2008 (I mentioned her here once before). She told me loudly and confidently, as if playing Lady Bracknell on stage, that English was rapidly degrading; for example, “The Americans have no adverbs. Absolutely none. They’ve just got rid of them.”

I wanted to explain about my American citizenship and quarter-century of living and teaching linguistics in California, and the…

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‘All the Good Meetings Are Taken’

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Peter Paul (Paulie Walnuts) Gualtieri,
of The Sopranos

A particular phrase was all over the news on Monday and Tuesday.

  • “Why did Donald Trump Jr. take a meeting with a Russian lawyer?” (CBS News headline)
  • “Trump Jr. previously acknowledged taking the meeting to learn damaging information about [Hillary] Clinton.” (The Associated Press)
  • “He reportedly took a meeting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton that he knew was coming from the Russian government.” (Vox)

Facing increasing criticism about his be…