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There’s Trump, OK?

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President Martin Van Buren, to whom Donald Trump owes a rhetorical debt (Wikimedia Commons)

OK. It’s America’s greatest word, OK?

Anybody should know that. Born on a page in a Boston newspaper on March 23, 1839, and co-opted the next year for use in a presidential election campaign, “OK” has become the American way of reaching agreement (“OK?” “OK”), introducing or concluding a topic (“the lecturer’s OK”), marking approval, announcing that everything is satisfactory, or expressing a pragmatic, c…

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Farmers and Cowmen in the Language Wars

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“The Old Editor,” John McIntyre

A common, maybe the most common, framing of the conflict between language prescriptivists and descriptivists puts it in personal and psychologized terms: anal-retentive schoolmarms on the one side, unkempt hippies (probably raised by Dr. Spock-toting parents) on the other. That view, while not baseless, is reductive and not especially helpful, leading as it usually does to name-calling and bile rather than to a forward path on mutual ground.

Maybe a more useful le…

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Is This the Right Moment?

speak-no-evil-monkeyLast month I was recording a lecture and had to say the word pyramidal. The passage, about bats in pyramidal cages, was an example of how the passive voice is deployed in scientific writing. I’d never before had occasion to say that word out loud.

I went with what seemed like a perfectly reasonable guess: pyramid (pronounced as usual) + -al, so the primary stress remained on the first syllable.

I got stopped. And corrected. “Py-RA-midal,” I was told. I had to practice a few times in my head …

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Linguification: That’s the Name of the Game

Narendra Modi, peripatetic prime minister of India

The term linguification originated on Language Log in 2006. I coined it to denote a peculiar kind of rhetorical device: People saying things like “The words ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are always found together” to mean “The concepts X and Y are related,” or (to cite a recent headline on Quartz India) this sort of thing:

Three continents in 140 hours — Narendra Modi shows he doesn’t know the meaning of “jet lag”

Does Modi’s itinerary really show that? Of course…

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Ellipses and I

ellipses-mainI have been thinking about the changing nature of the ellipsis as a grammatical device.

A few days ago, I was going over a draft of a graphic novel I am about to send to the publisher. It is called Angelitos, and it is about a Mexican priest who devotes his life to protecting homeless children. I had written two versions, one in Spanish and the other in English, about a year ago. I had put them aside to simmer. When I looked at them again, I was struck by the abundance of ellipses in the two ver…

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Colonialism in U.S. Spanish Departments

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Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas

While Las Meninas is perhaps the world’s most famous selfie, and Miguel de Cervantes’s edits on Cide Hamete Benengeli’s novel mapped metafiction centuries before it was in vogue, there’s an argument to be made that the cultures of Spain should appear considerably less in U.S. curricula. In a recent study, I found some disturbing trends: Despite efforts toward cultural democratization in the 1970s, nearly all Spanish-language departments in the United States are over…

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A Postcard From Schleswig-Holstein

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 5.23.28 PMKiel, Germany — The Kieler Woche is a huge weeklong festival of art, music, culture, theater, and maritime recreational events, held on the western shore of a fjord, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, that opens to the Baltic. (One tends to think of Germany as being mostly surrounded by land boundaries, but up here it has both an east coast and a west coast, from sea to shining sea.)

My room on the waterfront has a panoramic view of yacht races, processions of tall-masted “windjammer” sailing s…

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Living in Latin

salvilogoIf you think Latin is a dead language, think again. Over the past few years, a growing number of “living Latinists” are breathing new life into Latin, taking it out of the classroom and into the light of day.

In February I attended  Bidua Latina, the North American Institute for Living Latin Studies’ Latin-immersion weekend. The institute, known as SALVI (see logo at left for the full name), seeks ways to make learning the language more enjoyable for students, teachers, and the general public. T…

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Half Time for WOTY

WOTY-scrabbleMonday, June 20, marked the turning point of the year — the solstice, when days stopped getting longer and started on their six months’ journey to long, dark nights. Now we can’t put off thinking about the rest of the year so easily:  back to school, Election Day, Thanksgiving. Maybe even a World Series victory for the Chicago Cubs.

So it’s also time to begin thinking about the Word of the Year, specifically the WOTY chosen by the American Dialect Society. The society had the first word, havin…

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And Loving It

5635292On my short list of core principles is this: Only good things can come from giving people (sincere) compliments.

I acted on it the other day, when I commented via email that I admired a friend’s writing. The person responded, in part:

I think that, as with lovemaking, you can’t really do it well unless you love doing it. I really enjoy coming up with an idea — any old idea, to start with — and writing about it, and tweaking what I’ve written until it seems just right, sometimes through dozens of…