Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

Oct. 13 2015 9:00 AM

Why Do We Say Someone Is “On” a TV Show, but “In” a Movie? 

Of all the sentence fixings—the adjectives and conjunctions spicing up the subject-verb burger—prepositions may be the most bedeviling. Are you sick with pneumonia or from pneumonia? Do you have an opinion of Donald Trump, or about Donald Trump, or on Donald Trump? (That last conjures an orangey thatch of disapproval squatting atop the candidate’s scalp.) Every now and then, a preposition-addled entertainment writer fires off the same question, seemingly unanswerable and yet recurring, like a soul destined to be reincarnated until it figures things out. Why is an actor in a movie but on a TV show?

In an email (but also on a screen), linguist Rob Chirico offered Lexicon Valley a historical hypothesis. He argued that early filmgoers analogized the movie theater to a live theater. (Often those early movie theaters were live theaters, repurposed.) Since thespians performed in the theater, they likewise acted in a movie—the new arena for their talents. Television actors, on the other hand, and also in contrast, and also by contrast, did not exist inside the black box; they were broadcast on channels, sucked into antennae, and splashed across the screen as moving pictures. They were therefore said to be on TV.

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Oct. 9 2015 1:52 PM

Is It Unfair to Expect Famous Authors to Reply to Students’ Mail? 

Sometimes a throwaway tweet taps into a seething mass of resentment and frustration, one that many people don’t even realize they’re a part of. That’s what happened yesterday when novelist Celeste Ng, presumably after receiving the email that broke the writer’s back, posted:

Sept. 28 2015 9:00 AM

How the Invented Old English of The Wake Draws You In, Even as Its Hero Pushes You Away

Early in The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth’s widely and rightly praised novel of the Norman Conquest, the narrator laments his losses. Once a privileged English landowner, Buccmaster has seen the French invaders destroy all that he owns and all that he loves. “Words are the only weapons I have left now, and no one would say I have ever been afraid to wield the weapons I have,” he declares.

Except that’s not what he says, not quite. Instead, Kingsnorth writes:

Sept. 23 2015 6:17 PM

Yogi Berra Turned Linguistic Vice Into Virtue With His Cockeyed Tautologies

With the passing of the great Yogi Berra come the inevitable tributes to his famously cockeyed gift for language. Everyone has been sharing their favorite Yogi-ism: “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.” “It’s déjà vu all over again.” “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” “You can observe a lot by watching.” “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

The list goes on and on, though many of the sayings attributed to him actually came from elsewhere. Or, in Yogi-speak, “I really didn’t say everything I said.”


Berra is often reputed to have spoken in malapropisms—the accidental substitution of one word for another—but very few of his famous quotations actually fit that description. One of them came in 1973 when, as manager of the Mets, he sized up the opposing Reds in the playoffs and called Cincinnati’s Tony Pérez “a big clog in their machine.”

But if all Berra did was mix up words like cog and clog, his Yogi-isms would not be remembered nearly as fondly as they have been. Rather, the quotations that are most canonically Berra-esque involve something more subtle: a kind of absurdist play that questions our assumptions about the way language works, and about how language reflects the world.

Yogi-isms were often tautological on the surface, but not so self-evident when you stopped to think about them. Take his dictum “It ain’t over till it’s over,” purportedly delivered to a reporter in the summer of ’73 when the Mets seemed out of the pennant race. “Taken as propositional logic, this is informationless,” wrote Lane Greene in the Economist. But in Berra’s higher logic, it makes perfect sense: the “over-ness” of a baseball game or season cannot be calculated ahead of time. Assumed conclusions do not necessarily equate to actual ones.

In classical rhetoric, tautology was often seen as a failure. On Silva Rhetoricae (“The Forest of Rhetoric”), a website maintained by Gideon Burton of Brigham Young University, you will find tautologia listed among the stylistic vices. But Berra had a knack for turning such vices into virtues.

While tautology involves repeating the same thing in different words within a single statement, many Yogi-isms take the opposite approach: setting up a seemingly irresolvable conflict between linguistic elements. Rhetorically speaking, we’re dealing with paradox: “A statement that is self-contradictory on the surface, yet seems to evoke a truth nonetheless.”

Think of the great line, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded” (In The Yogi Book, Berra recalled saying this in 1959 to Joe Garagiola and Stan Musial about a restaurant in his old St. Louis neighborhood). Or, in the same vein: “It was hard to have a conversation with anyone, there were so many people talking” (said to be about fancy state dinner). Both statements set up apparent oppositions but then reach for something more transcendent, by subverting the conventional meanings of words like nobody and anyone.

Even if Berra didn’t “say everything he said,” he managed to pull off these linguistic tricks with remarkable frequency, seemingly without even thinking twice about it. When asked to create a new Yogi-ism, he objected, “If I could just make ’em up on the spot, I’d be famous.” Of course, in his very objection, he did make one up on the spot, and he was justly famous for doing so.

We might wonder how Berra’s brain operated to produce so many beautifully off-kilter observations. But he is certainly not the only person in history to possess such a cockeyed outlook on the world, nor the only one with the ability to express himself in cockeyed language. The film producer Samuel Goldwyn was, in his day, just as famous for his Goldwyn-isms: “Gentlemen, include me out.” “I’m giving you a definite maybe.” “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Or consider Berra’s longtime mentor Casey Stengel, who was prone to saying things like, “A lot of people my age are dead at the present time.” On his gravestone, it reads, “There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had plenty of them.” (Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, surmises that Stengel’s “colorful and sometimes incomprehensible statements” must have had a lasting influence on Berra.)

Perhaps we all know someone who is capable of such peculiar commentary—someone who, as Roy Blount Jr. once said of Berra, “reacts more quickly and on two planes of possibility at once.” In the Beatles, that role was played not by the great songwriters John Lennon, Paul McCartney, or George Harrison, but their good-natured drummer, Ringo Starr. It was Ringo who, for instance, came up with the pleasingly paradoxical line, “It’s been a hard day’s night.”

And when Lennon needed a title for a rather portentous song based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he punctured the profundity by using a Ringo-ism that had come out in an interview on the band’s return from their first visit to America in 1964: “Tomorrow never knows.” Yogi, like Ringo, might have been written off as a colorful goofball, but in that goofiness can lie sheer poetry.

Sept. 23 2015 4:17 PM

Notes on Notes

“Very often,” mourned the French philosopher Antonin Sertillanges, “gleams of light come in a few minutes’ sleeplessness, in a second perhaps. … There is every chance that on the morrow there will be no slightest trace left of any happening.” Unless you own a smartphone. Sertillanges, in 1934, recommended “fixing” mental glimmers in a journal, like butterflies to a board.* In 2015, he might have approached his problem—the problem of time passing, and our forgetfulness—with the Notes app.

If jottings are to interior life what photographs are to life lived out in the world, Notes is Snapchat for your soul. Apple has tricked out iOS9 with a shiny new version of the skeuomorphic iPhone feature with its charming lined-paper-and-yellow-binding design. You can now format text with bold and italics, create checklists, even trace letters with your finger or a stylus. Though the iPeople insist Notes is for “memo-taking,” that is not, in my experience, where its real utility lies. (Maybe if you defined “memo-taking” super-broadly, as in “transcribing a band recommendation and four digits of a telephone number while drunk.”) Not everyone walks around with a Moleskine notebook, but almost everyone has a smartphone. The Notes app therefore serves as a diary for nondiarists, a catchall for the flotsam and ephemera you didn’t even realize you wanted to record.

Sept. 17 2015 1:21 PM

The Tolstoy of the Zulus. The Citizen Kane of Video Games. Subsumptive Analogies Are the Hitler of Figurative Speech! 

Among many other American infamies past, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me conjures the ghost of an old Saul Bellow controversy. Bellow, a tetchy critic of multiculturalism in his later life, once asked an interviewer: “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?” Coates remembers reading the quip and feeling shattered. “Tolstoy was ‘white,’ and so Tolstoy ‘mattered,’ like everything else that was white ‘mattered,’ he writes. “And this view of things was connected to the fear that passed through the generations, to the sense of dispossession.”

Bellow, who died in 2005, had come under fire for his rhetorical question before, so much so that he published an op-ed defense in the New York Times Book Review in 1994. The comment had been taken, Bellow groused, “as a proof that I was at best insensitive and at worst an elitist, a chauvinist, a reactionary and a racist—in a word, a monster.” Continued the Pulitzer Prize-winner: “My critics, many of whom could not locate Papua New Guinea on the map, want to convict me of contempt for multiculturalism and defamation of the third world. I am an elderly white male—a Jew, to boot. Ideal for their purposes.”


Tribal affiliations aside, we should certainly convict Bellow for using a poetic construction that almost never ends well. The Tolstoy of the Zulus. The Yale of the Midwest. The Helen of the West Indies. The King of Queens. If garden-variety similes serve to equate two things, these lopsided comparisons force one term to exert twice the gravitational pull of the other. Call them subsumptive analogies. Condescension is usually baked right in.

Subsumptive analogies sting because they constrict the domain over which one of the terms operates. (Consider Ralph Wiley’s solution to the Bellow problem: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” he wrote, “unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”) Repackage a subsumptive analogy as a simple simile—rephrase “Vanderbilt is the Harvard of the South” as “Vanderbilt is like Harvard”—and the side-eye vanishes. No longer are you pointing out Vanderbilt’s inferiority to the real Harvard. No longer does the South emerge as a pale reflection of the Northeast.  

In that sense, the “X of the Y” construction is the Donald Trump of rhetorical moves: It bigfoots around its field of play missing the point. If analogies exist to draw out the unlikely similarities between two things, surprising us into a more beautiful or interesting mode of perception, the subsumptive simile just uses one term to approve of the other while still subtly negging it. “Vanderbilt is the Harvard of the South” does not so much inspire reflection about the particular Cantabian qualities distinguishing Vanderbilt as it conveys a lazy and smug sort of validation. So frequently do patronizing writers ask where one might find the Citizen Kane of video games that one annoyed fan has started collecting examples on a Tumblr page. The critics being lampooned are so convinced of gaming’s inferiority to film that they can only imagine an eventual masterpiece by borrowing some luster from the big screen. For all the two works’ similar grit and ambition, few would dream of calling Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy “the Grand Theft Auto of movies.”  

What if Robert Burns had opened his lyric not with “My love is like a red, red rose,” but with “My love is the red, red rose of eligible girls in town”—or, worse, “the red, red rose of eligible girls in town with whom I suspect I have a chance and of whom my parents approve”? The line sounds not like a gift but like a slap in the face. It distracts us from the woman’s red rosehood (the point of the simile); it diminishes her intense beauty by paying undue attention to the limited context in which the statement is true.

There is, perhaps, one context in which subsumptive analogies do not prove vaguely insulting: ad copy. The language of marketing already lends itself to flagrant hyperbole. SAs are perfect for trumping up a product without generating too much thought about the intricacies of the comparison. William S. Burroughs’ publishers tried to sell him as the “Elvis of letters.” The “King Cone” frozen dessert brand—a compression of the subsumptive claim that one ice cream treat is the king of the cones—garbs itself in the furs of royalty, even though it is mostly locust bean gum, bleached wheat flour, and chocolate flavored soy lecithin. The diet industrial complex has deemed a drug called Garcinia Cambogia the “holy grail of weight loss,” though it may be more properly termed “the Sistine Chapel of sham marketing ploys.”

With analogies, intention matters. In an understated love poem, Elizabeth Bishop invites her partner to “Come, let me wash [your hair] in this big tin basin,/ battered and shiny like the moon.” The simile asks us to dwell quietly on the battered and shiny qualities of the basin—perhaps even to remember lunar lines in a love poem by Yeats: “A moon, worn as it had been a shell/ Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell.” Reading “The Shampoo,” I am swept up in the tenderness of Bishop’s summons. Both she and her partner may be timeworn and tired, but they shine like heavenly bodies in each other’s eyes.  

What would I do, on the other hand, if Bishop had termed her basin “the MOON of hair-washing equipment”? I’d buy it. 

Sept. 10 2015 5:32 PM

We Keep Pronouncing Voldemort’s Name Wrong and J.K. Rowling Has Given Up

Bad news, fellow Slytherins, we’ve been pronouncing the Dark Lord’s name wrong. It’s not Vol-deh-mort, with a t at the end. It’s Vol-deh-mor. The final consonant is silent, as in the French word for death, mort, which is pronounced like the purple wilderness in which Heathcliff hanged puppies long ago.

J.K. Rowling confirmed our mass delusion Wednesday in a tweet.

Sept. 7 2015 10:30 PM

The White Poet Who Used an Asian Pseudonym to Get Published Is a Cheater, Not a Crusader

Congratulations to Yi-Fen Chou, whose poem “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve” was selected for inclusion in the Best American Poetry anthology for 2015. BAP, launched in 1988 by the writer and professor David Lehman, is co-edited every year by a visiting literary starlord. This year, that starlord was the great Sherman Alexie; previous years have entrusted the scepter to Mark Strand, Rita Dove, and Terrance Hayes.

There’s just one problem: Yi-Fen Chou’s real name isn’t Yi-Fen Chou. It’s Michael Derrick Hudson. Hudson, who works for the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Indiana (and from whom we might expect a fuller understanding of the difference between Anglo-European and Chinese lineage), explained his nom de plume in a contributor’s note:

After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again. As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful for me. The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty (40) times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed submission records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine (9) times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.

That “nothing if not” formulation, which Hudson probably intends wryly, is a risky one, especially given the sensitivities at play. (You are nothing if not an appropriative cheater! one imagines the real Yi-Fen roaring, from some alternate dimension.) On social media, the response was swift and ruthless, spanning at least three (3) platforms.

A Tumblr page festooned with mocking pink thought bubbles—“only total psychopaths use their middle name Michael Derrick Hudson. Go shoot a president!” “Is this racist or white privilege or just super-annoying? I can’t tell”—made the rounds. On Facebook, Timothy Yu, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, came forward with a tongue-in-cheek confession. “Like every poet, from time to time I write poems of which I am somewhat embarrassed. Once these poems have been rejected a multitude of times, I send them out again under the name of Michael Derrick Hudson of Fort Wayne, Indiana,” he admitted.

Yu’s sarcastic kicker—that his alter ego must on some level resent “that he is nothing more than a figment of a Chinese American imagination”—gets at the way Hudson’s impersonation of an Asian poet exploits and subsumes Asianness. Hudson has transformed a heritage into a useful stroke of invention that, attached to a poem, might increase his acceptance rate. “I felt that appropriating his name amounted to a kind of poetic justice,” Yu told me.

Hudson’s attempt to game the poetry submissions system is, of course, unethical. He lied to reap the benefits of affirmative action, a set of practices designed to ease the effects of ingrained injustice. BAP stunts aside, it’s still much more difficult for female writers and writers of color to get published than for white men. And, as with the case of Rachel Dolezal, assuming a minority identity when it suits you and then retreating into inherited advantages when it doesn’t pretty much defines white privilege. (Sherman Alexie has published a blog post explaining his decision not to pull Hudson’s poem. It is passionate and charming and asserts that dumping “The Bees” would “cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP.” To me this doesn’t quite follow. I’ve reached out to Alexie and to David Lehman for further comment, as well as to Hudson, and will update this post if I hear back.)

On the other hand, has Hudson’s immoral gambit exposed a flaw in the literary ecosystem? Why should a poem be rejected under one name and accepted under another?

The question seems legitimate but lacks context. The world is awash in great poems. Any selection of the best ones will necessarily rely on extra-literary factors. Most people would rather see diversity be one of those factors than say, marketing or connections. In his introduction to BAP 2015, Lehman writes that “the spirit of democracy on display” in the book is “not inconsistent with the search for literary excellence.” I would go farther: There’s something equalizing about literary excellence—above a certain tree line of creative achievement, poems inhabit the same glorified atmosphere. Who would win between Robert Hayden and Adrienne Rich? Jorie Graham and Charles Simic? It’s an absurd question. (Yes, art at even the highest levels has some striations, but those distinctions—between Frederick Seidel and Shakespeare, for instance—are rarely applicable to a “year’s best” roundup.) And so the criteria that editors apply to separate one tangle of beautiful poems from another will obviously have less to do with the beautiful poems themselves than with the kind of artistic community we want to nurture—one in which people of all backgrounds can speak their particular and irreplaceable truths.

But tell that to the disillusioned speaker of “The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve.” (Even the title suggests a numbness to the world’s variety and abundance.) He is a bitter, cynical fellow, prone to lines like:

My life’s spent
running an inept tour for my own sad swindle of a vacation
until every goddamned thing’s reduced to botched captions
and dabs of misinformation in fractured,
not-quite-right English.

Elsewhere, “Chou” laments that he “never amounted to much.” “At my feet,” he writes, “the leaves/ skittering across the driveway say: Thanatos! Thanatos!/ as if to shush me with the bug-holed currency// from life’s latest bankruptcy.”

This is a poetry of grievance, and if flecks of self-mocking humor soften its despair, I’d argue that it’s still slightly more interesting coming from a Chinese American writer than a white one. Perhaps that’s a controversial claim. Yet Yu, the UW–Madison professor, agreed. “There’s nothing explicitly Orientalist in [Hudson’s] work,” he told me. “The tone—grating, flippant, irritated—caught my ear because it defied my expectations” for a young Asian man in Indiana.

“We have this fantasy that authorship doesn’t matter,” Yu continued. “But if that were true, none of this would be happening.”

Perhaps what Hudson’s feat demonstrates is that, without some kind of extradiegetic edge, his poems don’t quite cut it. Is that really the statement he wants to make?

Aug. 26 2015 2:39 PM

Poignant Short Stories Composed Entirely of Example Sentences From the Dictionary

One of my favorite parts of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is when the contestants ask for a word to be used in a sentence. The sentences—which occasionally name-drop Drake or quote Kelis— are gems in their own right, but are rarely actually helpful when it comes to understanding how a word is used. This is often even more the case in the dictionary, which doesn’t have the added pop-culture amusement.

Jez Burrows, a British designer and illustrator, was looking up the word study in the online edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, where, among “all the plain, functional language used to define the word, there was this very intense, melodramatic example sentence—‘He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.’ ” He told me over email that “It just seemed like a piece of fiction that had gotten lost and wandered into a dictionary.” So he did what anyone would do in 2015—he started a Tumblr, Dictionary Stories, and wrote that story using other found explainer sentences from the dictionary.

Aug. 18 2015 8:29 AM

What Is the F--kboy?

A good insult requires no elaboration. We feel it before we understand it. That’s why some slurs resonate even when we’re not sure who or what they’re defaming. Consider the strange case of fuckboy, which plays a central role in Nancy Jo Sales’ controversial article, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse,’ ” in this month’s Vanity Fair. Here are two true statements about the word: Everyone knows what fuckboy means. And no one knows what fuckboy means.

To be clear, fuckboy has plenty of definitions—so many, in fact, that the word is less interesting for what it means than for why it seems to welcome so many (often mutually exclusive) claims to meaning. And while some of those claims are older than others, none possess anything like universal authority, Sales’ perhaps least of all. Describing how smartphone apps have intensified the dynamics of hookup culture, Sales writes, “A ‘fuckboy’ is a young man who sleeps with women without any intention of having a relationship with them or perhaps even walking them to the door post-sex. He’s a womanizer, an especially callous one, as well as kind of a loser.”

Succinct and precise as this definition is, it has turned Sales into an object of condescension for some. “Fuckboy is not a dating style,” claims Alana Massey, “so much as a worldview that reeks of entitlement but is aghast at the prospect of putting in effort.” Elaborating on this claim over the phone, she told me that, to her, a fuckboy is a man who wants a girlfriend without the attendant responsibilities. Fuckboys “become emotional vampires to women who aren’t even their girlfriends.