Monthly Archives: October 2016


The Wisdom of the American People?


De Tocqueville: Flattery will get you elected.

The phrase “the wisdom of the American people” appears in The New York Times’ s archive precisely 50 times. The first iteration was in 1856 (five years after the newspaper’s founding), describing an address by Senator Sam Houston of Texas, on North-South tensions; read in the light of history, it is redolent with dramatic irony: “He hoped, however, and believed they would terminate without any fearful disaster to the Union, and that the wisdom …


Greetings and Salutations: Endangered Species

Dear readers:

No, that won’t do for an email nowadays. Try again.

Hello, all:

or should my greeting be less hellish? (A generation ago, a county in Texas adopted “heaven-o” as an alternative to “hello.” No, I won’t go that far. Just this — )

Hi, all:

Maybe that will get me off on the right foot. It’s hard to be sure, because in the world of email the salutations aren’t as fixed as they were for communications on paper. Before the internet, a business letter in hard copy would begin “Dear So&So,”…


Banter, Locker Room and Otherwise

Screen Shot 2016-10-11 at 11.38.35 AMI’ve been thinking about a word that came up in the context of the Trump Tapes.

No, not that word. (Or that one. [Or that one.]) It cropped up in a line of the candidate’s initial nonapology apology, when he said, “This was locker-room banter.”

Locker rooms all over America immediately spoke out in protest, but what caught my ear was banter. It seemed to have an oddly old-fashioned feel, and old-fashioned it turns out to be, having emerged in both noun and verb form in the late 17th century (ety…


The Perils of Being a Cubs Fan


The “W” flag means a win at Wrigley Field

Late this past Tuesday evening, a turning point came in a long and hard-fought campaign, a turning point that may well force a permanent redefinition of what it means to belong to a distinctive group of adherents.

No, nothing as trivial as the current presidential campaign, whose significance pales in comparison with what truly matters — being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. And what that means may be about to undergo a drastic revision.

It is well known that…


20 Things Students Say Help Them Learn

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Illustration by Jerome Corgier for The Chronicle

Near the end of August, the 2014 Business Insider article “10 Things Every College Professor Hates” started circulating on Facebook again. I had just finished the syllabus for my introductory English linguistics class and was feeling excited to be headed back into the classroom. Yet here was this article, which felt so negative. It didn’t come across as entirely respectful of all that students bring to the table. And the piece, aimed at students…


The Internet Isn’t Changing English. Nor the Converse.

Choire Sicha

Choire Sicha of The Awl

I don’t buy any of the argument in Katy Waldman’s Slate article about language on the internet. I’m not looking for the most “shocking and magnificent change the web has worked in language” because I don’t think the web is changing our language at all. The various headlines, summaries, sharelines, and text of Waldman’s piece compete with and contradict each other in their striking but unsupported claims: “Language took over the internet…”; “the internet is changing langu…


Trumpadocious Apologies

tumblr_inline_mta1erMmj51qc7mh1How can a statement that begins “I apologize” not be an apology? Many have referred to Donald Trump’s initial statement following the October 5 revelation of a taped conversation featuring lewd and objectifying language about women as a “nonapology.” Having received plenty of similar nonapologies from rebellious teenagers, I’d like to take a moment to explain.

The statement at hand is from Trump’s press release of October 7: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” The syntax is familiar to m…


Welcome to Norwood University

longwood-debate-badge-dWhatever Mike Pence’s qualifications may be as advocate for the Republican presidential candidate, or for his own vice-presidential and presidential temperament, on Tuesday night he showed himself peerless as a comedian.

In his opening remarks at the vice-presidential debate, he declared, with solemn voice and countenance, “Thank you to Norwood University for their wonderful hospitality and Commission on Presidential Debates. It’s deeply humbling for me to be here.”

Humbling indeed. But he wasn’…


Up for Debate

Trump_&_ClintonIt has not always been a term describing a gladiatorial contest or a beauty pageant. It has not always been about popularity.  It has not always felt like a truck pull. It has not always been a public event regarded by the media with lipsmacking delight simply because audience size was comparable to the Super Bowl.

Yes, the word debate comes into English through Old French debatre and its Romance analogues, all of which have something to do with fighting, quarrelling, and other forms of contesta…


The Anglophone Millstone


I’ve owned up in an earlier post to the rather disgraceful fact that I can’t speak German despite having once spent 18 months living in Germany. I know how to to produce the sounds of German accurately; I can read the language aloud from a text, and pronounce everything correctly — I just draw a blank on most of what the text means.

I have the necessary motivation. A key determinant of success at learning a language is the degree to which you like the speakers and want to interact with them and…