October 31, 2012, 12:01 am
Image from Gawker.com
Frankenstorm, they called it: a huge, ugly, shambling monster of a storm formed by unnatural melding of a hurricane from the southeast and a monstrous cold-air mass oozing down from the north. In the week of Hallowe’en this unholy thing staggered toward us, and we fled like frightened villagers.
As Frankenstorm approached, health and safety officers canceled classes and closed campuses. Brown University was closed on Monday, and during that afternoon a horror-film storm began to buffet the apartment block where I live.
Meanwhile, Frankenweenie was showing down at the Providence Place Cineplex 16. (Personally, given 16 choices, I think I might rank an animated horror movie about bringing a dog back from the dead at about No. 16, but many people love Tim Burton’s whimsical efforts. I’m sure it is…
October 30, 2012, 12:01 am
The tradition of unsayable words or things is a long one. In Judaism, you cannot utter the name of God. In Harry Potter, you cannot utter the name Voldemort. In my household, you cannot utter the fact that my dog is not a human.
Nationally, the number of things that can’t be said appears to be growing, judging by the popularity in the last couple of decades of the tiresome locutions spawned by the f-word and the n-word. (They are so plentiful that they need a moniker; I propose “the first-letter-word phrase” but am open to suggestion.)
We can add to that list—at least as far as the 2012 presidential campaign is concerned—the phrase climate change. As The New York Times recently reported, “Even after a year of record-smashing temperatures, drought and Arctic ice melt, none of the moderators of…
October 29, 2012, 12:01 am
It’s almost the eve of All Saints’ Day, or as we call it, Halloween, when children throughout the United States ring doorbells in search of candy, raising the ancient medieval cry, “Trick or treat!”
Just one thing is wrong with that statement. “Trick or treat!” is not ancient. It’s not medieval. It’s not even early modern. “Trick or treat!” was brand new in the 20th century.
And it’s not European either. “Trick or treat!” was born and raised in North America.
Its exact origin is, for now, unknown. But thanks to increasingly comprehensive databases of historical publications, it’s becoming clear that “Trick or treat!” began in the western United States and Canada in the 1920s and gradually spread east, until by the late 1940s everybody knew it.
Many new words are such obvious derivations of older ones that they are invented independently more th…
October 26, 2012, 12:01 am
I appear before you today to consider the inescapable epithet of the moment, at least in the realm of the youthful demotic. You cannot read the Internet, turn on Comedy Central, or eavesdrop in the student union without hearing it.
I refer, of course, to douchey, as well as to the nouns from which it sprang, douchebag and douche.
The “douchey boyfriend” meme
Last year saw the publication of The Rogers & Littleton Guide to America’s Douchiest Colleges. (Winner: Cornell.) A comparatively venerable Web site, Hot Chicks With Douchebags, has yielded its own book and MTV series. On the sitcom New Girl, the character Schmidt is required to to put money in a Douchebag Jar every time he says or does something, well, douchey. In a monologue on his TBS show, Conan O’Brien, noting that Barack Obama had…
October 25, 2012, 12:01 am
A president of the United States has to have two voices: dignified and down to earth.
Blame it on George Washington. And on Andrew Jackson. If you want to sound presidential, you need at least two styles of speaking.
Washington came first. At a time when nearly every country in the Western world was led by a hereditary ruler, the brand-new American republic was taking the bold step of doing without a monarch. Could an untitled citizen equal the majesty of kings and emperors?
Washington could. That’s one reason he received 100 percent of the electoral vote both times, the only president ever to do so.
As I understand it (I’m a linguist, not a historian), Washington had such prestige among his countrymen that he could have been king if he wanted. And he certainly could have been re-elected president as long as he wanted. But he believed in the democratic ideal, and in…
October 24, 2012, 12:01 am
I’ve just finished grading my first set of persuasive essays this term. True to form, about two-thirds of them ran into trouble, or exposed the trouble into which they’d run, with an unreferenced demonstrative pronoun, usually “this.” A quick sampling, with identifying markers removed:
- Because Character A, who loves him, is not aware of her own potential, she is more desirable to Character B who is able to use this to his own benefit.
- Critic X’s ideas are particularly applicable when examining how B participates in indirect narration. This is most clearly seen by comparing the description of Character C from the narrator’s perspective to moment when we are taken inside B’s thoughts.
- Character Y’s interactions serve as a red flag to us as readers, warning us that he is not a voice that can be trusted. The most significant moment that demonstrates this is just after…
October 23, 2012, 12:01 am
In Prince George, British Columbia, poetry readings are raucous and well-attended. Five hundred miles north of Vancouver, P.G. is a first giant step on the way to the Alaska Highway or to the coast at Prince Rupert, or to the Peace River country. You never know where poetry’s going to find a place to flourish. I read at the College of New Caledonia and the next night Sarah de Leeuw read at Books & Co.; we’d not met before but we came to each other’s events and, at the bookstore, she—a very interesting poet and essayist and a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia—was introduced as being a northern native from a place called Haida Gwaii. “What’s Haida Gwaii?” I whispered to my friend. “New name for the Charlottes,” he replied.
I was sitting with the Caledonia crowd—my …
October 22, 2012, 12:01 am
Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and pro-immigrant activist, was here at Brown University last week giving a lecture. In 2011 he outed himself as a person who (as he discovered during his teenage years) immigrated from the Philippines without obtaining the legal right to remain. He has been campaigning to get news organizations to ditch the phrase illegal immigrant. He thinks it is inaccurate, improper, and demeaning. The putative point (discussed by Lawrence Downes here) is that no immigrant has the property of being illegal: Illegality is a property of acts, not of human beings.
I certainly agree that people who are in Mr. Vargas’s position through no fault of their own shouldn’t be regarded as criminals. But I regret to report that the linguistic objection to the phrase illegal immigrant is naïve, and flies in the face of well-known facts about syntax and word …
October 19, 2012, 12:01 am
Mark Bauerlein, in a recent post on our sister blog The Conversation, made an interesting remark about a couple of students who defended their use of a certain obscene expletive in class:
I was astonished to hear two of the brighter students in the class arguing for its use as a singularly expressive token. When I raised the issue of propriety, they claimed that any stigma was just a generational thing, and that when their generation matures, the F-word and other expletives will have normal status.
The word in question—the principal obscene word of the English language, the one that begins with a voiceless labiodental fricative—cannot be named here, because The Chronicle maintains strict New York Times policy on profanity: It “virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones.” Furthermore, it “forgoes offensive or coy hints” with “telltale…
October 18, 2012, 12:01 am
The joke is an old one.
Boy on telephone: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”
Tobacconist: “Yes, we do.”
Boy: “Well, you’d better let him out before he suffocates!”
Readers of Lingua Franca will recall that Albert was a noble gentleman married to the queen of England. Fewer readers might know that Prince Albert is a popular brand of tobacco. Fewer still might recognize the designation tobacconist (purveyor of an addictive herb), a professional term now as rare as cooper or carter or candlestick maker.
Watching a replay of last night’s presidential debate I was reminded of Albert’s dilemma. What were those women doing in those binders? How’d they get in there? And by the way (checking my calendar to be sure it was 2012), what decade was I living in?
Governor Romney’s misspeak concerning access to the names of qualified female job…