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Turkey Talk

Nobody can explain the turkey.

The expression to talk turkey has been with us for a long time. We’re still not sure where it comes from, though, much less how turkeys got involved. You’d think turkeys had enough to worry about besides English usage. Especially this time of year.

Turkeys mean American Thanksgiving (a retronym, like acoustic guitar—thank you, my many Canadian friends). Which of course is why I’ve turned to British reference works for an explanation as to the meaning of the exp…

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The List Lilt

Stephen Potter

Stephen Potter

I told you about vocal fry. And you know all about uptalk? The inflection that was first discussed by Robin Lakoff in 1976, that was given its name by James Gorman in a 1993 New York Times article, and that continues to rouse the ire of right-thinking people everywhere?

Well, here’s a new one, which I started noticing a couple of years ago, among friends, colleagues, students, and National Public Radio interviewees (basically, my audio universe). It’s a way of voicing a list as if…

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Acknowledging the Corn

It’s time to take a breather from rescuing the humanities. So in this week of Thanksgiving, let’s pause a moment to acknowledge the corn.

William Bradford (1590-1657)

Corn—Indian corn—was on the menu for the first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts in 1621 along with waterfowl, wild turkeys, and venison, according to William Bradford’s memoir Of Plymouth Plantation. (Bradford didn’t mention the Thanksgiving dinner, but he did name the foods the colony had in abundance.)

And it is significant that thi…

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Idiom Strong

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Residents of Barrett, Pennsylvania, sold t-shirts to help local police defray costs associated with a recent manhunt.

Back in September, Barrett Township, in Pennsylvania, was the center of a  manhunt for an armed fugitive and adopted the motto “Barrett Proud.” When the suspect was caught, in October, the entire region appropriated it and dubbed itself “Pocono Proud.

This week The New York Times reported that after an 11-year-old Indiana boy, Calvin Clark, suffered a severe head injury in a foo…

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An Angel for the Humanities

Last week in this space I regretted the lack of an acronym identifying the fields of the humanities, an acronym that would be a counterpart to the scientists’ successful STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. A hundred readers joined in the discussion, and one, I think, came up with the answer to our prayers: RAPHAEL.

It would signify:

R – Religion
A – Art
P – Philosophy
H – History
A – Aesthetics
E – English
L -Languages

Admittedly, the acronym isn’t perfect.

—If Art, why not Music and Th…

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Disputing Linguistic Myths

arrernte_pronouns

I remarked in a recent post that the reason I spend time disputing silly things people say about English grammar is that I take seriously my job description as a professor. But I’ve actually been working to rebut silly claims about language (not just English) since I was an undergraduate.

In the 1956 British edition of The Guinness Book of Records, which I browsed for hours when I was a boy, the section on language (Page 118) has an entry headed MOST PRIMITIVE LANGUAGE. The rosette for “probabl…

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Noping Out

keep-calm-and-nope“I love how that goat just nopes out of that situation.” And I love the ring of a newly hatched bit of slang that hasn’t even received its Urban Dictionary definition yet. Here, at its inception, nopes out doesn’t yet sound juvenile to me, or evasive, or overused, or imprecise; it hasn’t yet earned any of the pejoratives that purists may hurl its way if and when it becomes as widespread in the language as amazeballs or totes. Rather, it describes a quick series of actions that seem to have been …

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On Subtitles

A few days ago I happened upon a brief essay by Borges called “On Dubbing,” in which he lambasts the then-recent Hollywood invention (the essay was written in 1945) of  devising “monsters which combine the illustrious features of Greta Garbo with the voice of Aldonza Lorenzo.” Borges calls the mechanism “a malignant artifice” (un maligno artificio). He asks, sarcastically, “How can we fail to profess our admiration for this painful prodigy, for these ingenious phono-visual anomalies?”

I, too, di…

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Passivity and Other Afflictions

call-to-actionLast week, I suggested that we got ourselves into trouble trying to distinguish between disinterest and uninterest because multiple meanings of the word interest put both prefixes at a disadvantage when it comes to drawing bright, clear lines of meaning. Now I’ll wade into muddier waters. Much ink has been spilt over the use or abuse of the passive voice in English. I’d like to propose two notions that, held in balance, might decrease our level of apoplexy:

  1. The term passive voice is a term of a…
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Pediaphilia

Narcissus2

Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” The encyclopedia made us look outward.

No, it’s not what you think. It’s the creeping insistence that everything needs its own encyclopedia.

Older readers of Lingua Franca will remember the era of multivolume encyclopedias. Some of you may have grown up with classy sets of Britannicas. Others may have had their parents acquire a humbler set of Funk & Wagnalls, one volume at a time, at the grocery store, as mine did. The books were offered week by week, letter by letter,…