January 31, 2012, 12:01 am
Why, oh why, does Latin tug at the heartstrings? It was a language of empire; of lawmakers, yes, but rarely of bards or poets. And yet when I read of the decision by the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature to allow plant classification in English rather than Latin, I felt a tinge of nostalgia. No longer, writes the botanist James Miller in The New York Times, will he need to describe his new Mexican species as “Arbor usque ad 6 m alta. Folia decidua; lamina oblanceolata vel elliptica-oblongata, 2-7 cm longa”; he can write “Six-meter-tall tree with deciduous leaves 2 to 7 centimeters long.”
Surely, the new language is a relief for scientists, especially scientists in plant-rich countries where young botanists tend not to cross-train in classical languages. “In places like Ethiopia, for example,” according to Sandra Knapp of London’s Natural History Museum,…
January 30, 2012, 12:01 am
A mousepad for our time
*Mitt Romney’s PAC is airing a commercial in which Newt Gingrich is heard defending his employment by Freddie Mac: “And I offered my advice. And my advice as a historian.” To which both the offscreen narrator and some onscreen text reply: “Historian? Really?”
*In a recent New Yorker profile, Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein mocks a Portlander who complains that a grocery store sells fresh pasta from Seattle, rather than something more local. “Really?” Brownstein says. “You don’t have a bigger battle?”
*After the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this headline: “’Hugo’? 11 Oscar Nominations? Really?”
Well, you don’t need any more proof that the snarky Really? is as viral as chicken pox in a…
January 27, 2012, 12:01 am
Here’s part of a 2007 blog post by Melissa McEwan, talking about the way some news sources write about the rape and murder of young women in a way that almost makes it sound as if women were just out there playing the rape-victim role and becoming murdered without any male intervention at all:
In a second homicide that summer in the city involving a young woman who had been drinking to excess, 18-year-old Jennifer Moore left one of the city’s most exclusive lounges intoxicated. Walking alone in the early morning hours along the city’s West Side Highway, she was abducted and raped. Two days later she was found disemboweled in a dumpster in Weehawken, N.J.
She was abducted and raped and she was found disemboweled in a dumpster, all because she had been drinking to excess and was walking alone while intoxicated. No trace of the person who actually abducted, raped, and murdered her…
January 26, 2012, 12:01 am
He was one of the most notable linguists of the 19th century. Yet since his lifetime he hasn’t merited even a footnote in the history of linguistics (or philology, as they said then).
Edward H. Rulloff was so well-known in his time that he was the subject of two contemporary biographies. And the biographies were no dry-as-dust treatises, but best-selling books chronicling the exciting life of a philological genius.
He was expert in Latin and Greek, as well as French and German. But his claim to linguistic fame was that he had discovered the origin of language in the very language of the present day.
Near the end of his life, he gave a glimpse of his discoveries in an interview with a reporter for The New York Sun. Human language, Rulloff explained, had been deliberately constructed by the first humans, based on the four liquid sounds l, m, n, r:
“They combine readily with…
January 25, 2012, 12:01 am
Last week I wrote about what writers can expect when their manuscripts are edited on screen with the changes tracked electronically. This week I’ll explain what a copy editor can expect from writers in return.
(Of course, your editor will tell you in an e-mail or cover letter exactly what she expects, which might differ from my advice here. But knowing the odds of a writer actually reading a cover letter and following instructions, I’ll carry on.)
If the e-files you receive are not locked, you will be able to accept or reject the editor’s tracked changes. It’s quite possible that you are not supposed to do this. Read the cover letter to find out. If that is indeed your charge, however, then make sure that the Track Changes feature is turned on, and use the Review menu to vet the changes one by one, clicking Accept or Reject for each one. (It’s best never to click Accept A…
January 24, 2012, 12:01 am
This past Saturday, in the tradition of John Allen Paulos’s 1997 book A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, I picked up the papers delivered to the front door—the Philadelphia Inquirer and New York Times—and read them, even more so than usual, with an eye to grammar, usage and other language trends they might reflect.
I suppose I was struck, first, by how relatively few the mistakes or nonstandard usages were. Think of it: The papers contained I don’t know how many thousands of sentences, yet the vast majority were as kosher as a Ratner’s onion roll!
Not all of them, however. A consequence of newspapers’ hard times that’s been little discussed (outside the industry) has been a sharp reduction in the number of copy editors, the unsung last line of defense against all sorts of errors, and here and there in my reading I could detect their absence. Thus the start of an Inquirer…
January 23, 2012, 12:01 am
Brought up in the Episcopal Church, I found religion only when we got to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Plenty of theologians have parsed that sentence, but to me at 13 it meant simply that language came first, that we made the world with our words. Now there, I thought, was a faith I could avow.
Now, along with my fellow Lingua Francaphiles, I blog weekly about the nuts, bolts, and idiosyncrasies of language. We’ve been up and running for almost five months, and our readers are starting to take stock. Some of you love what we write; some of you hate some of it; some express sorrow or confusion. You can’t please all the people all the time, but I wonder if what we have here is not just the old argument between prescriptivists and descriptivists, but a deeper unease as to who ought to discuss the language we…
January 20, 2012, 12:01 am
Elizabeth Yagoda suggests "nom nom" originated in the world of "I Can Has Cheezburger"
The digital-communications maven Arik Hanson recently posted on his blog a list of what he called “terms we obvi need to totes elims from our lexi forevs.” It was basically a diatribe against some slang, abbreviations, and acronyms he feels are “totes” overused on Facebook, Twitter, texts, and e-mail.
I found I was familiar with some of the terms (including maven) but not others, and in a flash of inspiration I sent the list to my daughters, Elizabeth Yagoda, a first-year graduate student, and Maria Yagoda, a college senior, so as to hear from “the young people” (as Ed Sullivan might have put it). Here’s a selection of some of Hanson’s bad boys, with comments from Elizabeth and Maria. (Elizabeth is still on…
January 19, 2012, 12:01 am
Pootwattle(TM), created by the Writing Program, University of Chicago
You’d think that Facebook, Twitter, Timescast, and Youtube would provide ample opportunities for work avoidance when one is on leave and trying to write a book. You’d be wrong. The devil who sits on my shoulder was delighted to discover Pootwattle the Virtual Academic™, created and managed by the writing program at the University of Chicago. Complete with scruffy white locks, spectacles, a pipe, and a collar-length beard, Pootwattle generates random sentences from phrases “common in many academic fields.” Clicking on “Generate a sentence” just now, I got “The teleology of the natural does not undermine the unanalyzed arbitrariness of process.”
What fun! Let’s do another. “The invention of narrative…
January 18, 2012, 12:01 am
It is time to address the commenter whose reaction to my remarks about they with singular antecedents was to say this:
Too bad this article about pronoun agreement has a grammatical error in the first sentence: “… who I will call Mary” should be “whom I will call Mary”. Even the lead-in had a similar error: “Who are you supposed to trust on grammar if you can’t trust a native-speaking grammarian’s own considered usage? Geoff Pullum wonders.” Shame on you, New York Times and Geoffrey Pullum.
My post concerned the riddle of why some people are so extraordinarily reluctant to take anything they read, even well-edited prose by expert native speakers, as evidence about English, rather than evidence that some inarticulate clod has mangled it. But even as I try to explain why such dogmatism is a conceptual error, people commit it again. Those I am trying to reach seem unable to…