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Czars in Their Eyes

Boris Godunov, czar of all Russia, 1598-1605

It’s been a big month for the czars.

The White House has appointed Ron Klain as Ebola czar. Not capo or boss, but czar, the Russian term (also transliterated as tsar) related to Latin Caesar and German Kaiser.

What’s with American English and czar, concept and word? Is it ours now, or do we still need to mark it off in some way?

HuffPo and The Washington Times deploy the term in roman font without typographic qualification. NPR has taken a more circu…

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Wordsmith Bingo

Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly

My Facebook (and actual) friend Gene Seymour posted this the other day:

Some 40 years ago, Wilfrid Sheed began his post-mortem for Cyril Connolly by asking who the best living writer of English prose is now. His pal John Leonard made a case for Malcolm Muggeridge while Sheed tossed out such eminences of the era as Cheever & E.B. White, concluding that what complicated the cases for both was that neither could likely do what the other could. (I vaguely remember that being the case….

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Two Dictionaries

When a mighty storm fells a great tree in the forest, it creates a clearing open to the sunshine where seedlings can flourish. And that, metaphorically, is what happened in the world of dictionaries in 1961, when the third edition of Merriam-Webster’s great New International Dictionary, the Unabridged, provoked a storm of criticism because it harbored a four-letter word, and not only harbored it but declared that under some circumstances it was proper to use. The word was ain’t, and the Unabridg…

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Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

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Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was … The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick called Plan …

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MooT Pursuits

MooTI have a soft spot for people who invent games, especially games with words. And by way of some random keystroke, I found myself on the mailing list of Jon Steeves, inventor of MooT, “the game of semantics, etymology, and grammar.” For almost two years now, I’ve received random emails with questions like In Greek it means “rules of the belly,” whereas in English it denotes “the art of eating and drinking well.” What word is it?*

red_wine_bottle_48679Finally, I caved and got a copy of the game. Two weekends ago, on a…

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Talking About Word Aversion on TV

Language Log has devoted occasional posts to word aversion since Mark Liberman first discussed it in 2007. The New Yorker took it up in April 2012, and the Huffington Post did likewise that December (though neither used the term “word aversion”). Slate magazine followed in April 2013, and then various British newspapers; and now I’ve been asked to discuss the topic on a BBC early-evening magazine-style TV program, The One Show.

You might think it’s a big strike against me that I’ve never researc…

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Noms de Guerre

Q: What do great poems and wars have in common?

A: They don’t need fancy names.

George-W.-Bush-Mission-accomplishedShakespeare didn’t title his sonnets, and I’m fairly sure that no one fighting in the Wars of the Roses thought of them in flowery terms. (The name came along 400 years later.) Now, though, we can barely roll out the tanks before we need to come up with a marquee name, something to blaze across the sky in block capitals and declaim in a stentorian baritone. The latest, our push against the Islamic State in Iraq a…

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The Meanings of Rape

A demonstrator at Amherst College wants the administration to admit its past mistakes.

A nod to the semantics of “rape” seems pertinent in the current climate. After all, this is a polysemous word, that is, a word with multiple connotations, some of which look like anachronisms.

In Middle English, “rape” was used when talking about haste, as in the proverb “oft rape rues,” or “haste makes waste.” Our contemporary use seems to be linked; “rape” entails an act done rashly and injudiciously—a…

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The Giants Won the Pennant

On Thursday, in the National League Championship Series game between San Francisco Giants and the St. Lous Cardinals, Giants outfiender Travis Ishikawa came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Jon Miller was announcing the game on the Giants’ radio affiliate. “Now the stretch,” Miller said. “Here it comes. There’s a drive, deep into right field, way back there. Goodbye! A home run. For the game. And for the pennant. The Giants have won the pennant and Travis Ishikawa is being clobbered a…

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Ebola, the Word

There’s no mystery about Ebola—the word, that is, not the disease. We know exactly when and how it began, in 1976. The word lay dormant for most of the intervening decades, occupying a quiet corner of our vocabulary, until the resurgence of the virus in Africa and its arrival in the United States just a few weeks ago made the word highly contagious. By word of mouth and print and Internet, it has reached practically every household and hamlet in the land.

Fortunately, for all its fearsomeness, t…