Monthly Archives: February 2016


Wassup, Wazzock?


You may have caught this Budweiser ad during the Super Bowl. Dame Helen Mirren sits before a burger, is served a Bud (not bloody likely), and counsels, in strong language, against driving drunk. Anyone who does so, she avers, is a “shortsighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution.” Then, at about the 41-second mark, she says, “Don’t be a pillock.”

My guess is that somewhere north of 99 percent of the people who saw the spot had no idea what a pillock is — though they coul…


Big Trochee

diagramtrocheeIt’s hard not to be familiar with the term Big Pharma, an acidulated nickname for the pharmaceutical business.

Where drug company  is plausibly neutral and pharmaceuticals generalizes a product into a descriptor, the term Big Pharma points an accusing finger at opaque, monopolistic control over medicines.

Big Pharma isn’t meant as a compliment. The capital letters even look thuggish.

The word pharma is a trochee, a two-syllable foot with the stress on the first element. There’s something abou…


To Co-Author, or Not to Co-Author?

ucscgraphI noticed recently that I now have more than 100 co-authored works on my publications list. It occurs to me that this rather high number might raise questions or even eyebrows: Is it evidence that I am a pathetically dependent hanger-on, joining other people’s research projects because I can’t come up with my own? Or a domineering research-group leader stamping my name on every paper that the group produces? Or merely a gregarious person who enjoys intellectual interaction?

These are reasonable …


Fool ‘Ish’ Ways

tumblr_lglk43DP9v1qzr2iro1_500It’s smart … ish. It’s cool … ish. It’s up-to-date … ish.

Well, ish!

No, I can’t claim that ish is new. In fact, ish has been in the English language since before there was an English language. Since time immemorial, -ish has been a suffix creating adjectives like English and Turkish, selfish and prudish, to give some examples from the Oxford English Dictionary. And it’s an integral ending for verbs like cherish, languish, accomplish.

But more recently, in the past 500 years or so, -ish has bee…


Write if You Get Work

Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as the cranberry grower Ward Smith

Bob, as Wally Ballou, interviewing Ray, as cranberry grower Ward Smith

“If they like Bob and Ray, they’re OK.”

—David Letterman, on how to tell if someone has a good sense of humor.

Comedy, in addition to being hard, ages faster than unpasteurized milk. No one is a greater admirer of the best comic writers and performers of the past than I, yet I experience their work only with admiration, almost never with actual laughter. The one consistent exception is when I listen to recordings of Bob and R…


Editor Needed

squirrelIn a junior-high-school grammar lesson about misplaced and dangling modifiers, I was given this memorable sentence to correct: “Clinging to the side of the aquarium, Mary saw the starfish.” Poor Mary. It is exhausting to be asked to hang onto an aquarium wall that way.

I was thinking about that sentence recently when my sister, a lawyer, sent me a provision from the New Jersey Administrative Code. She and her husband are trying to deal with the squirrels in the attic, and so she had checked the …


(Your Name), Enabler

arianne-glitter-geek-little-miss-trouble-enablerIt’s hard to tell exactly when the verb enable spawned the noun enabler. An 1825 issue of the Annual Register, per the OED, provides some hint in suggesting that “the word Habilitador might, if there were such a word, be translated Enabler.” A habilitador, or habilitater, was one who endowed something or someone with ability or capacity. For at least some period of time, an enabler did likewise. As recently as 1978, in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s publication Stimulati…


The New Science

matt-damon-martian-trailer-lands-well-2015Neil DeGrasse Tyson tweeted that it was his favorite line from the film’s trailer: ”I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.”

It’s already the best-known line from Ridley Scott’s The Martian. You might have it on a T-shirt by now.

Vulgar, yes, but it’s also a good example of the rhetorical device called anthimeria, recently explored here.

The Martian is futuristic science fiction. But the education business has been sciencing for a long time.

Our word science  comes from Latin scientia…




So many words for dying, deceasing, expiring, succumbing, giving up the ghost, meeting one’s end, passing away, being taken from us, meeting one’s maker, going to a better place, breathing one’s last … If the numerosity of words and phrases for things really correlated with speakers’ degrees of interest in them (a dumb but extremely popular belief I have critiqued before), we would have to assume that English speakers are fascinated by death in all its forms and discuss it all the time in techn…


How ’Bout That Ass?

donkeyteethSo I’m writing my historical novel, minding my own business, when some sort of semantic bug bites me and sends me off on a language tangent. Does this ever happen to you? Last week, I was describing the building of a gristmill on a tributary of the Hudson River around 1700. Given the rough terrain at the time and the need to haul a lot of heavy stuff around, I thought the mill builders might have donkeys handy, rather than horses. This supposition occasioned a bunch of research into when certa…