In the Phonetic Jungle


A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “…


What’s Old Is New Again

1book21It can be easy to romanticize the state of handwriting back in the day, say the turn of the 20th century, when people were regularly writing letters by hand — and in cursive, to boot. But here is Lewis Carroll lamenting bad handwriting in 1890:

Years ago, I used to receive letters from a friend—and very interesting letters too—written in one of the most atrocious hands ever invented. It generally took me about a week to read one of his letters! I used to carry it about in my pocket, and take…


Obviously, That Is an Idiotic Question



Frank Zappa once said, “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” The same could be said for sports journalism. Except that in sports journalism, there is a whole lot more interviewing. Athletes are continually quizzed about their thoughts, feelings and reactions — in the locker room before and after games, on the field by “sideline reporters,” in more formal studio sit-downs. Coaches typically have presidential-style post…


We the Partisan People

war-is-peaceIn response to my recent post on pronunciation in political speech, one reader took me to his video on the subject, which led me in turn to an amazing bit of research underway by scholars at Stanford and Brown Universities, the University of Chicago, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. In their paper “Measuring Polarization in High-Dimensional Data: Method and Application to Congressional Speech,” Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse Shapiro, and Matt Taddy have combed through 126 years of cong…


Gender Self-Identification: M or W?

funny-bathroom-signs-392__605The politics of gender have come to this: two letters, M and W, on restroom doors. Two letters that cannot begin to encompass the varieties of gender identification that we in the 21st century have learned to recognize and accept.

M and W were perfectly sufficient as long as our gender categories were limited to heterosexuals, lesbians, and gays. But then we learned that there were many more categories, included in acronyms like LGBTQQ2IA, where T is Transsexual, QQ is Queer and Questioning, 2 i…


I Have No Word

A World War II-era service flag. (Library of Congress.)

The other day, NPR’s All Things Considered interviewed Karen Meredith, who, along with other parents whose children had died in the military, had signed an open letter to Donald Trump asking him to apologize for his comments about the parents of late Army Capt. Humayun Khan. Meredith observed:

Losing a child, you know — there’s not a name. If you lose your parents, you’re an orphan, but there’s no name for a parent who has lost a child, not…


Antimetabole Season

tumblr_inline_mvjmslKfjw1qbolbn“We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” That was Joe Biden (quoting Bill Clinton) at the Democratic National Convention, using perhaps a politician’s favorite rhetorical device: antimetabole. Great word, huh? It’s from the Greek, like so many literary terms of art, in this case a Greek word meaning “turning about.” This reversal of word order has been responsible for some of the most oft-quoted bits of political discourse in history, including:

“Ask not what…


Sidestepping Haters

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-lyrics-maxresdefaultA year ago, Lucy Ferriss evoked two dozen responses to her Lingua Franca post “Be a Lover,” where hater and its antonyms (lover among them) were the focus of attention.

Now, a year later, hater is hotter than ever. In the words of Donald Trump, for example: “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump. A hater. He’s a hater.”

The recent prominence of hater and hate has been traced back in part to Taylor Swift, who two years ago sang, “The players gonna play, play, play, play, play, and the hat…


Reflections on the Trivium


Daniel M. Hausman opens the introduction to his anthology The Philosophy of Economics (Cambridge University Press, 1984) with a contemptuous statement about economics quoted from a character in a novel by the satirist Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866), Crotchet Castle. One character has just referred to “political economy, the science of sciences,” but another, the Rev. Dr. Folliott, demurs, calling it “hyperbarbarous” (there’s a word you don’t see every day!):

“Premises assumed without evidence,…


Bad Optics

“Tarzan has always had bad optics — white hero, black land — to state the excessively obvious,” wrote Manohla Dargas in her review of The Legend of Tarzan in The New York Times.  This time around, the muscular white expanse of Tarzan is supplied by Alexander Skarsgard, who induces no eye strain. The use of optics is another matter.

Optics, the science of light and lenses and sight, has given way in popular use to the sense of “the way in which a situation, event, or course of action is perceiv…