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‘To Boot’

boot copyA friend was describing an eclectic coffee shop slash clothing store that he had discovered. He added, “They sell shoes to boot!” We laughed at his unintentional word play (shoes to boot — you get it). And then I got distracted. By “to boot.”

It’s a funny expression once you think about it (why a boot?), but that’s not actually what distracted me. I learned a few years ago where the phrase comes from — and that it has nothing to do with footwear. The boot in to boot goes back to the Old English …

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Finger-Pointing, Trouble-Saving, and Pussyfooting

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In an earlier Lingua Franca post I grumbled about writing advisers who vilify the passive as if it were a dangerous drug (despite using it copiously themselves in private). Warnings against the passive have in fact been getting increasingly extreme for about a hundred years (for the evidence, see my article “Fear and Loathing of the English Passive“). So when I encounter a book that’s a bit better than the average, as I recently did, it’s only fair that I should comment. The Handbook of Good En…

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The Pink of Fashion

MagrittePipeWhen young women return to our campuses this fall, many will distinguish themselves by wearing clothing and carrying backpacks labeled in capital letters: PINK.

Why? And especially why, when most of the items labeled PINK are  not colored pink at all?

It’s reminiscent of Magritte’s famous 1929 painting of a pipe with the inscription ”Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” that is, “This is not a pipe.” And indeed, however realistic the painting may be, it isn’t a pipe. It’s just an image of one. He called th…

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Here’s Looking at You, Narcissist

narcissus

“Narcissus,” by Caravaggio

There’s one word that seems to doggedly follow the Republican nominee for president, and no, the word isn’t Whuuuuuuhhhh???????

Last week, on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Jon Stewart called Donald Trump “a thin-skinned narcissist.”

The author David Cay Johnston said of Trump in a Guardian article, “He’s a world-class narcissist.” (The title of the article was “Trump: The Making of a Narcissist.”)

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “There’s sort of a gravit…

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You Say Div-ISS-ive, I Say Div-EYE-sive

gop-demo-thinkstockNow that the Republican convention has popped its balloons and the Democratic one is inflating theirs, let’s pause for a moment to consider politics and pronunciation. I had very little stomach for the speeches in Cleveland, but I did tune in long enough to hear a few words whose distinctive pronunciation got me thinking. My sampling is anecdotal and perhaps arbitrary; I’m hoping others will expand and perhaps clarify this list.

Divisive. This one didn’t begin with President Obama’s pronunciatio…

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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

1011872_612122012174671_1054177590_nSo they say.

Hillary Clinton, for one. On June 1 she told a rally: “You can’t make this up. … Just yesterday we heard the truth about Donald Trump’s big talk about helping veterans. It wasn’t until the press shamed him that he actually made the donations. For months it was just a publicity stunt.”

And Salon on July 19: “Monday afternoon at a pro-Trump rally … a 16-year-old girl named Kate Kuptenko was called to the stage to sing an original song called, and you can’t make this stuff up, ‘Making …

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English, Italian Style

When I first traveled to Italy, nearly 50 years ago, I don’t recall seeing much public display of English, other than neon signs in Milan’s main square bearing the names of brands like Coca-Cola and Schweppes, and a few familiar phrases in shop windows, such as “Snack Bar” and “Self-service.” I’ve been lucky enough to return to that beautiful country many times since, and I don’t believe there was any change on the this score till the late ’80s, when there appeared T-shirts and sweatshirts beari…

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Babble, Brabbeln, Babiller, Balbettare

firstwordsI’ve spent the last month babbling. I like that word, babble. It’s what babies do before they “really” talk. It’s also the sound of water running over rocks. Apparently it is not related etymologically to Babel, the Hebrew word for Babylon, now known for the infamous tower whose builders were punished with the sudden eruption of mutually unintelligible languages.

I’ve been babbling because I have a purely fanciful desire to speak the major European languages, and my monthlong trip to Corsica a…

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Making Work

works“You’re just making work for yourself,” said somebody’s mother, and possibly mine.

Making work for yourself  – the reflexive component is essential to the judgmental tone — was a phrase I remember from my youth. It meant, of course, an inefficient and unnecessary expenditure of energy. It could be a task that would have to be done again anyway, though more simply and quickly, or it could be an activity that never had to be done in the first place.

The hyphenated term make-work is apparently an A…

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The World’s Best Philosopher of Linguistics

Yesterday while tidying my study I discovered something shocking: The world’s most brilliant, insightful, and prescient philosopher of linguistics died four months ago, and I didn’t know.

putnam

I was unwell in March, recovering from minor but painful surgery. Popping opiates like M&M’s, I would fall asleep while reading, and then lie awake in pain all night (my heart still aching from Tricia’s recent death). Yesterday I shifted a pile of papers and uncovered the March 26 issue of The Economist, open …