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Our Parent Who Art in Heaven

female-godIF THE ONION had existed when I was a kid being brought up in the Episcopal Church, this would have been one of its headlines: “U.S. Episcopal Diocese Votes to Stop Using Masculine Pronouns for God.” In seventh-grade confirmation class, I got into countless arguments with the teacher over there having to be a male God (“But how do you know? Has anyone ever seen his thingie?”) and over the savage in the wilderness. (The savage, as those of you not brought up in the mid-20th century Episcopal Chur…

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One Small Step (Backward) for the Parts of Speech

I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show the night, a couple of weeks ago, when Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, was about to force a brief government shutdown through a filibuster and other delaying tactics. Maddow showed video of him speaking on the Senate floor about one of his favorite themes, government waste, and I briefly glimpsed one of his visual aids that, if I read it correctly, was deeply strange. I searched the Internet for the poster, and it turned out I had read it correctly.

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Bully or Victim? Learning From ‘Rita’ (Part 1)

Mille Dinesen as the title character, a teacher, in the Danish TV series “Rita”

In a bullying situation, it shouldn’t be hard to tell the bully from the victim, should it?

Well, in our sensitive 21st century, it’s not always so easy. Here’s a case in point.

In Episode 4 of Season 4 of Rita, the acclaimed Danish television series focusing on an incorrigibly wayward but brilliantly successful elementary-school teacher, the first scene is about a new student named Liam and his classmate Knud.

To he…

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The Last Time I Saw Paris

George Whitman with his daughter, Sylvia (named for Sylvia Beach)

Long ago, in a world preceding the European Union, the euro, and the tsunami of American students who go to Paris every semester for classes ranging from “Paris, Cinema City” to “French Political Life,” I was a pastry salesgirl in Versailles. I spent most of my days off in Paris, and when I needed a hit of American culture, I skipped over to Shakespeare and Company, the little bookstore facing Notre-Dame from the Left Bank.

Back t…

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On Trying Not to Be a ‘Smacked-Ass’

Sign outside a South Philadelphia restaurant

Sign outside a South Philadelphia restaurant.

The night before my (adoptive) hometown Philadelphia Eagles took on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII (which I keep reading as the Trumpian insult “Lil’”), Saturday Night Live aired a brilliant skit imagining Colonials from each region trash-talking each other at the Continental Congress. Local girl Tina Fey led the Fluffyans (the way we say the city’s name) and nailed the weird local vowels, like pronouncing the team as “Iggles,” the place …

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Hearts and Ashes

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Emperor Claudius II slaying Valentine, from a copy of Speculum Historiale, Vincent of Beauvais, c. 1335, Bibliothèque nationale de France

February 14, 2018, brings about the rare concatenation of two extreme perspectives on human life. One is love, on Valentine’s Day; the other is death, on Ash Wednesday. Both are the same day this year. And both are courtesy of the early Roman Catholic church, though the former has become secular, while the latter remains religious. It’s not hard to imagine wh…

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No Overtime Pay for Milk-Truck Drivers (or Professors)

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The Oakhurst Dairy case was finally resolved this week by a financial settlement. You may remember Lucy Ferriss’s piece about the case (“Milking a Comma for All It’s Worth”) in March 2017. In a recent New York Times article Daniel Victor throws a few casual insults at the linguistically informed (“punctuation pedants, grammar goons and comma connoisseurs”), and asserts that the case “hinged entirely on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law,” as if it was all about the victory of a trivial us…

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Baked, Not Fried

The_Great_British_Bake_Off_titleIn 2015, an article in the Atlantic considered the ways in which algorithmic analyses can incorporate prejudices and other forms of statistical skew. Lauren Kirchner’s piece was entitled “When Discrimination is Baked Into Algorithms.”

Computer science has made peace with this use of the verb to bake for a quite a while now, and desirable features of your smartphone are baked into the gizmo’s hard drive and apps.

Cybernetic baking is hardly the only kind. A more recent piece by Shane Goldmacher i…

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The Most Diplomatic Word

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Laugh-In’s Arte Johnson

It’s the most useful of words when we want to avoid an argument: “interesting.”

You may be asked to say whether you think something is good or bad, wonderful or terrible, lovely or disgusting, but you may not want to offer an opinion.

For example, someone at my college exhibited snapshots taken in Europe — the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum — and brightly said they would encourage students to travel abroad.

No one would mistake the traveler for a professional photographer.

V…

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Talking Killer Whales? Gullible Science Journalists More Likely

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The single most crucial concept needed for me to explain to anyone what my academic specialism is all about, obviously, is the notion of language. And I sometimes feel a twinge of despair at the fact that the general public simply does not get that concept. Any kind of putative transmission of information, or any animal or device uttering a noise that almost sort of sounds like a word, is spoken of as language.

A paper entitled “Form and Function in Human Song,” by Samuel Mehr and Manvir Singh …