Category Archives: Communication

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The Subtle Art of English Ethnic Slurs

michael_oleary

Ryanair, a cut-price airline, made serious managerial errors in predicting pilots’ leave time this fall, and had to cancel scores of flights. Here’s how the story was introduced, under the headline “Ryanair chief forced to grovel over cancellations,” in the tabloid newspaper Metro (front page, September 19):

Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary has promised compensation after the airline decided to cancel flights for up to 400,000 passengers over the next six weeks.

The Irishman made a frank apology ye…

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Plain Talk About Public Murder

turku

What is the point of classifying public mass murders as being (or not being) “terrorism” or “terror related,” as opposed to simply criminal? Why should some maniacs and assassins be accorded the honor of promotion to a higher grade of homicide? There is no generally accepted definition of terrorism, so why are such terminological distinctions even attempted when news about public slaughter is breaking?

The fashion for “lone wolf” low-tech killing sprees in public places came to the pleasant por…

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Robots Gossiping in a Secret Language?

tworobots

I returned from Konstanz to find a whole slew of newspapers, websites, and news magazines had revived a language technology story from two months ago (Adrienne LaFrance discussed it in The Atlantic in June). Facebook, they reported, had been trying to get two chatbots (“Bob” and “Alice”) in an “adversarial network” to learn negotiation by reading a stash of transcribed negotiations between humans and imitating them. But as the chatbots purported to negotiate over the pricing of balls, hats, and…

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‘Dictionary of American Regional English’ Speaks!

Dare Image by Ellen

Chronicle illustration by Ellen Winkler

 

If you read my posts, you may be familiar by now with the grand six-volume Dictionary of American Regional English, completed in print in 2013, but continuing to live beyond that date in quarterly updates on the internet.

Now DARE  has come to life in another way. It’s not just in writing that the dictionary tells us about the different ways we talk in this vast country. DARE  is speaking up!

Now we can hear the recorded voices of some 1,800 people in 1,…

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The Much-Needed Gap

kindofwoman

A few mornings ago I was half-listening to a radio piece that I think may have been about women’s kick-boxing in Jordan. (Forgive me for the vagueness, but it was way before 6 a.m., and I was half dozing to the early morning sound of my bedside clock radio playing the BBC World Service magazine program Boston Calling.) As my mind slowly rebooted, I heard someone quote an inspirational saying:

[1]   Be the kind of woman that when you get up in the morning the devil says, “Oh crap, she’s up.”
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Nina in Siberia

Elif-Batuman-The-Idiot

Elif Batuman and her new book

 

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, published earlier this year, has as its protagonist young Selin who, at the book’s beginning, is starting her freshman year at Harvard. We are in the fall semester of 1995. Selin is more or less a stand-in for her creator: Not only does she want to be a writer, she also has some of the same experiences that Batuman has written about in earlier memoir-essays. The book is self-conscious about the uncertainties immanent in language:…

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English Grammar Day

propriety

This Monday, July 3, I’m an invited speaker at English Grammar Day, an annual event involving nonspecialist talks and discussion on aspects of English, held at the British Library in London, and people have been warning me against full-scale frontal assaults on the general public’s beliefs, or polemics against authorities they respect. Be positive and nonconfrontational, they advise. They want me all soft and kind, as if it’s National Brotherhood Week.

Well, I’ve tried that. My article “50 Yea…

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The Speech Act of Hoping

kingandComey-vs

Last week millions of us were glued to our televisions or computer screens as James Comey, the recently ousted FBI director, was testifying to the Senate Intelligence Committee about a conversation in the Oval Office with President Trump. Sen. James E. Risch, Republican of Idaho, was asking him questions about the meaning of Trump’s reported utterance: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

“OMG,” I texted a lin…

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Of Cadillacs and Prairie Dogs

prairiedog

On a summer evening years ago, I dined with a group of friends at a rural Midwest restaurant where the parking lot was a patch of rough ground without marked bays. We came out to find a Cadillac parked close in beside our car. Edging into the gap between the vehicles (the other side was also tight), we did our best to get the doors far enough open to slide in without dinging the Cadillac. Our close approach triggered the Cadillac’s motion-sensitive theft alarm. A loud synthesized voice told us:…