A Blog About Language

April 22 2014 11:17 AM

Henry James Is Cited More Than 1,000 Times in the OED. Here's Why.

It is virtually impossible for an English-language lexicographer to ignore the long shadow cast by Henry James, that late 19th-century writer of fiction, criticism, and travelogues. We can attribute this in the first place to the sheer cosmopolitanism of his prose. James's writing marks the point of intersection between registers and regions of English that we typically think of as mutually opposed: American and British, Victorian and modernist, intellectual and popular, even the simple good sense of Saxon-Germanicism and the fine silk shades of Franco-Romanticism. Thus, because his writing defies easy categories, it isn't hard to suppose that James belongs in the back parlor of English-language history, a curiosity of passing interest, but one that, in its very idiosyncrasy, fails to capture the 'ordinary, everyday' language.

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April 17 2014 2:57 PM

Which Came First the Bunny or the Egg? (And Other Linguistic Intrigues of Easter.)

There is a linguistic connection between Easter and Passover
This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover and, simultaneously, the Christian Holy Week leading up to Easter, the holiday commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Christian writings make an explicit connection between the two holidays, equating Jesus to a "paschal lamb," a reference to the traditional Passover sacrifice. The English adjective paschal, which can mean either "relating to Passover" or "relating to Easter," is derived from the Hebrew word for Passover, pesaḥ (typically written as Pesach in English).

April 17 2014 11:31 AM

Is Obama Overusing the Phrase the Wrong Side of History? Are We All?

When Vladimir Putin seized Crimea, President Obama said, "Russia is on the wrong side of history on this." Secretary of State John Kerry concurred, using exactly the same phrase. They were hardly breaking new rhetorical ground for the administration. In his first inaugural address, Obama stated, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." Later, Obama declared that Putin was on the wrong side of history for supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He also said that Assad was on the wrong side of history.

April 16 2014 9:46 AM

How I Met Your Mother's "Legen—Wait for It—Dary" Is More Compli-Freaking-Cated Than You Think

Of all the running gags on the recently ended How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson's catchphrase—"It's gonna be legen—wait for it—dary"—was perhaps the most satisfying. It captured the bro-y, over-the-top essence of Barney, a womanizing metrosexual played by the actor Neil Patrick Harris, whose character famously concluded Season 2 of the sitcom with "wait for it …" and opened Season 3 with "dary." It spawned self-referential meta-jokes on occasion, and headline writers predictably played with it when bidding the show farewell two weeks ago.

April 15 2014 4:07 PM

Sorry, That's Not an Emoticon in a 1648 Poem :(

"I discovered what looks to be the first emoticon!" So read an excited blog post from Levi Stahl, an editor and publicity manager at the University of Chicago Press, who had been reading the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick. Stahl came across this line in a 1648 poem entitled "To Fortune":

    Tumble me down, and I will sit
    Upon my ruins, (smiling yet :)

April 11 2014 3:30 PM

The Awful Emptiness of "Relatable"

I first encountered the persistent abuse of the word "relatable" while teaching college classes in 2011 and 2012. My students understood the word as a compliment, applying it to texts, situations, and characters. I taught a class about popular culture and childhood, so a lot of things looked relatable: the friendships of the shopping-addicted protagonists of M.T. Anderson's book Feed; Peggy Orenstein's laments over princess culture; the entire concept of Ray Bradbury's 1950 short story "The Veldt."

April 11 2014 11:42 AM

In Defense of Clichés

Writing is tricky business. And so it makes sense that writers, in particular, are often prickly and opinionated about what makes writing good or bad. Thus, over at the Washington Post lives a very long list of clichés and stale phrases that are now verboten due to overuse: "The Outlook List of Things We Do Not Say."

Here's just a small sample:

April 10 2014 11:09 AM

The Real Story Behind The New Yorker's "Pronoun Envy" Poem

is a phrase
coined by Cal Watkins
of the Harvard Linguistics Department
in November 1971

Above are the opening, very matter-of-fact lines of "Pronoun Envy," written by the poet and classics scholar Anne Carson and published February in the New Yorker. The poem unfolds briefly as a straightforward narrative—involving "female students" and male pronouns—before lifting off, as Carson put it to me, "as a sort of air balloon whose buoyancy depends on bits of 'meaningless plunging' that hold up the corners." Behind the exquisite wordplay, though, and the compelling imagery and the meaningless plunging, a phrase borrowed from the poet Wallace Stevens, is a real story about language and gender.

April 9 2014 5:08 PM

Willa Cather Was Skeptical of Analytics Before You Were

Until a decade or two ago, the word analytics was limited, for me anyway, to exactly one context: the title of Aristotle's Prior Analytics.

Nowadays, analytics seems to be everywhere. There's Google Analytics, which "shows you the full customer picture across ads and videos, websites and social tools, tablets and smartphones." Harvard Business Review is prepared to tell you "Why Your Analytics Are Failing You," without any concern that you might not know what your analytics are. The University of Maryland just got a Gates Foundation grant "to better gather and use learning analytics." And so on, though tens of thousands of web sites, news articles, book chapters, and scholarly articles.

April 7 2014 10:01 AM

Make Sure the Next Scrabble Word Has Lexicographical Staying Power

There's a disconnect between how professional lexicographers and the general public consider words. For the dictionary people, sanctioning words is a painstaking process that can't be rushed. But the creation and popularization of letter combinations by consumers of language is an endless rush. One is a refined art, the other a chaotic scrum.

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