Monthly Archives: March 2013


The Cliché Expert Gets Fired Up Over March Madness

Coach K

Mike Krzyzewski, coach at Duke, whose team generates more than a few well-worn descriptives

(In his heyday, Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliché Expert, regularly graced the pages of The New Yorker, offering his two cents on the Silver Screen, the Great White Way, the National Pastime, and other arenas where catchphrases and bromides rule the roost. Although his wingman, Frank Sullivan, met his maker in 1976, Mr. Arbuthnot has improbably reappeared from time to time, including in the pages of The Chronicle


Commas and Feelings

commaA student in my “History of the English Language” course stopped me after class a few weeks ago and asked, “I was just wondering—how do you feel about the Oxford comma?” She could have asked about the rationale behind the Oxford comma (the comma after the penultimate item in a list—e.g., apples, chocolate, and peanut butter) or about the history of the Oxford comma. But instead, she asked how I felt about the Oxford comma, the suggestion being that a punctuation mark could be meaningful enough t…



thierry_ph45_qrsStrangers write to me all the time to express their language peeves. (I don’t know why; few people are less likely to sympathize with random peeves than I am.) Recently a man wrote to tell me that he had a specific adverb that he hated: “The first word I would eliminate from the English language is ‘quite’. It rarely adds anything.”

Notice that he wants to “eliminate” the word, not just leave it in the lexical toolbox for others to use. Three unsavory tendencies probably reinforce each other her…


An Academic Matter


Cardinal Richelieu, founder of l’Académie française

Recently l’Académie française, the nearly 400-year-old body of savants charged with perfecting and protecting the French language, was in the news for having admitted as one of its 40 “immortals” a francophilic Englishman. Never since it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu, in 1635, had such a thing happened.

The Englishman, Michael Edwards, poses no threat to the purity of the French language. He lives in Paris, teaches at the Collège de France,…


The He Stands Alone

slipperyYou heard it here first. For years, now, language mavens have been discussing the creep of the nominative pronoun in constructions calling for the objective case. Although voices have been raised in favor of “hypercorrection” as an explanation for this deviance, they have been mostly overwhelmed by explanations that rely on coordinate constructions. But I’m here to tell you that we have passed through the wall.

Let’s back up. Initially the concern was focused on phrases like Australian Prime M…


Creative Challenge: Ireland Gets a Head


Photograph by David Benbennick, via Creative Commons

Compared with a headline, a sonnet is a piece of cake.

That’s what I said last week, pointing to the difficulty of constructing an old-fashioned newspaper headline that fits to exact measure and that, in no more space than a haiku, exactly reflects the information, emphases, and tone of the story it heads.

I took as evidence a 1950s wire-service story used as an example of headline writing by Bruce Westley of the University of Wisconsin at Mad…


Rockin’ Robin

8196645-two-simple-speaking-birds-on-wire-vector-rgbMy mother talked to the birds. She’d stand under the Jonathan apple tree in our Missouri back yard and whistle up a cardinal or a yellow warbler or a black-capped chickadee, just by changing the melody and timbre of her whistle. “But what are you saying to them?” I’d ask as the birds tipped their heads quizzically from the perches in the tree.

“I’m just telling them hello,” she’d answer. “Letting them know they’re safe.”

Which they weren’t, always, given our cat, whose mouth she would sometime…


A Hell of a Note

Harold Ross

Harold Ross

No less than scratchy records and faded photographs, antique slang can powerfully and palpably evoke an era. Of course, the longer ago the era, the less intelligible the slang. Last week, for my blog, Not One-Off Britishisms, I was looking into the history of the verb pip (“to defeat or beat narrowly”) and found this 1838 citation from the journal Hood’s Own, or Laughter From Year to Year: “With your face inconsistently playing at longs and your hand at shorts,—getting hypped as …


Of Ngrammatology

I’ve recently discovered Google’s Ngram Viewer. If you haven’t found and played with it yet, you will.

The Ngram Viewer takes a corpus of just over five million library books digitized by Google and, within that arena, instantly searches for terms or phrases you may want to explore, tabulating the frequency of their occurrences over time.

The Ngram algorithm might let you visualize, for example, 20th-century deployments  of the words nitpicker, caviller, and momus—to choose more or less at ran…


Spurious Correlations Everywhere: the Tragedy of Big Data

I promised (last Thursday) to say a little more about Keith Chen’s claim that obligatory future-tense marking in your language makes you less prudent in safeguarding your health and wealth.

Chen’s data on languages comes from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS), and his evidence on prudence from the World Values Survey (WVS). Both are fully Web-accessible. Sean Roberts, who studies language evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, decided to investigate …