December 21, 2012, 12:01 am
Happy Christmas Santa, 1915; both “happy Christmas” and “merry Christmas” have been used historically.
Image courtesy of wpclipart.com
’Tis the season to be happy.
Happy New Year!
And a Merry Christmas to all!
Merry? What’s “merry” doing at this “happy” season?
It’s an anomaly, not just now but also the rest of the year. Consider our “happy” greetings on other occasions:
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!
Happy 4th of July!
and the most personal of all, Happy birthday!
So why is Christmas merry?
Did it come from Clement Clarke Moore’s “Visit From St. Nicholas,” the 1823 poem that started the present-day version of Santa Claus?
No, we all know St. Nick’s famous last words: “But…
December 20, 2012, 12:01 am
I only recently got around to reading an article by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic in October which described a very successful experiment in teaching writing at a high school on Staten Island (Lucy Ferriss discussed the controversy that followed it here on October 11). The story has an oddly conservative twist. Let me summarize a bit.
In subjects like English and history, New Dorp High School students were failing way too often on the essay parts of the Regents exams (a New York State graduation requirement). They could write a sentence or two but not a convincing and coherent paragraph.
Trying to figure out why, one teacher developed a quiz on coordinators (traditional grammar’s “coordinating conjunctions”): and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. The surprising result was that many students seemed unable to use them effectively.
This led to a consideration of words like although,…
December 19, 2012, 12:01 am
With the arrival of @Pontifex, Pope Benedict XVI has joined the ranks of the Twitterati.
Benedict’s predecessor on the papal throne, John Paul II, introduced e-mail to the Vatican’s communications network. But tweeting—the haiku of social media—seems an intervention of a different order.
For more than a million tweeters, Benedict’s entry into the arena is the digital equivalent of the Latin exclamation Habemus papam! (“We have a pope!”)—the announcement that St. Peter’s latest successor has been chosen by the College of Cardinals.
We must like our popes, since we have so many of them. Pop music, drug culture, and golfing give us the pope of mope, the pope of dope, and the pope of slope. There are persons or things to claim the title of the pope of chili and the pope of yes! while art history’s Sir John Pope-Hennessy was called “the Pope,” such was his authority.
December 18, 2012, 12:01 am
Sometimes dismissed as the dullest parts of speech, nouns appear to be ready for their close-up. The language blogger Nancy Friedman recently identified a rather bizarre advertising trend of taking an adjective, implying (but not providing) a -ness or -ity suffix, and emerging with a presumably supercharged noun. Examples include such slogans as “Rethink Possible” (AT&T); “Welcome to Possible” (Mindtree); “Welcome to Fabulous” (ULTA Beauty); “111 Years of Extraordinary” (Bergdof Goodman); and “The Future of Awesome” (Xfinity).
In a related development, comedians have grown partial to talking about the funny, a commodity that’s usually brought. A recent article from The Wrap presents Chris Rock’s views of current comics: “Compared to greats like George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, they just aren’t bringing the funny.” A monthly cabaret show in New York, meanwhile, is called
December 17, 2012, 12:01 am
Here we are again, in the wake of a horrific mass murder 45 minutes from my home, discussing whether or not we can discuss the question of guns. Writing in The New York Times on Saturday, Nate Silver pointed out a shift in our language to which any who wish, finally, to engineer this public discourse should pay attention. Gun rights and Second Amendment, as he demonstrates, are on the rise, whereas gun control and gun violence are on the decline.
As George Lakoff has so convincingly demonstrated in his articles and books (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think), language controls political debate: “Any political message about policy can be understood only in terms of moral values,” he writes in The Little Blue Book; moreover, “Traditional liberal discourse strategies are not consistent with the science of how reason really works.”
Nate Silver’s analysis back…
December 14, 2012, 12:01 am
I’m finally following up on a suggestion made some months back by Frank Williams at Eastern Kentucky University, to investigate the proliferation of the first-person plural in what appear to be dubious circumstances. He writes, “Decades ago I was taught not to use the first-person pronoun in serious writing, but instead to use the editorial ‘we,’ meaning ‘me’ (or maybe ‘I’), and I’ve seen the variety of ‘we’s’ that are explained on the Web. However in recent years I’ve seen what appears to be a different usage: ‘we’ meaning a small proportion of the general population (tho’ perhaps numerically large) but probably not including the author.” As an example, Williams cites David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts,” writing in The New York Times that “we have excessive fear of vaccines”—a fear that the author himself may not…
December 13, 2012, 12:01 am
A couple of weeks back, NPR’s “All Things Considered” ran a piece about the word random. It definitely was something I would be expected to like. After all, I am the NPR guy di tutti NPR guys. All the presets on my kitchen table radio are set to different public radio stations. On Twitter, I follow Steve Inskeep, Mike Pesca, David Folkenflik, and Don Gonyea. (I even know how to spell their names.) And I’m pretty interested in language as well.
But the piece was disappointing. It basically seemed to be about the fact that random has come to refer not only to an action made without deliberation or an event not following a pattern (the traditional meaning) but also, in the OED’s words, to something “Peculiar, strange; nonsensical, unpredictable, or inexplicable; unexpected.” The trouble is, that meaning has been around at least since 1988, the date of this OED citation from The New York …
December 12, 2012, 12:01 am
Language is conventional, not logical. But try telling that to the Greeks.
Like the rest of us, they weren’t happy to think that words are made up of arbitrary combinations of sounds or letters. Surely there must be some logic to etymology, they thought, just as we do today. Even in the absence of historical evidence, or despite it, we think that just by exercising our reason and imagination we can figure out where words came from.
In Plato’s dialogue of Cratylus, for example, Socrates feels inspired to provide the logic behind the Greek words for “man,” “body,” and “soul,” among others. In the translation by Benjamin Jowett, here is Socrates’ etymology for “soma,” the soul:
That may be variously interpreted; and yet more variously if a little permutation is allowed. For some say that the body is the grave (“sema”) of the soul which may be thought to be…
December 11, 2012, 12:01 am
I was surprised to see a recent reference in The Economist (December 1, 2012, Page 98) to a meticulous man who prepared “a shaken-but-not-stirred martini every night at 6 p.m. on the dot.” I wonder if you can see why I was surprised.
It’s true that the phrase shaken but not stirred gets over a million Google hits, but it is not a phrase James Bond ever uttered, and most of the hits that I looked at were using the phrase in extended or metaphorical ways that had nothing to do with martinis.
Bond’s signature vodka martini was ordered “shaken, not stirred.” That shorter phrase gets more than two million hits, huge numbers of them about Bond. The phrase that The Economist uses is subtly wrong for a martini. The word but is the problem. Let me explain.
The coordinator but makes an intriguing meaning contribution. On the one hand, the truth conditions of P, but Q appear to be…
December 10, 2012, 12:01 am
Apollo, god of poetry, courtesy of Stephen Vincent
My friend Stephen Vincent, a Bay Area poet and raconteur, was in Turkey last summer and snapped a picture of the sculpture of Apollo at Nemrut just as the sun was coming up. Beardless Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, healing and plague both, and music. And poetry. Shelley wrote (in “Hymn of Apollo”), “I am the eye with which the Universe/ Beholds itself, and knows it is divine.” At a poetry reading in San Francisco last week Stephen said, of his encounter with the god, “I thought I should ask him, Do you have any thoughts about creative-writing programs?”
In the creative-writing industry one commonly comes across metaphors for and references to the mercantile. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs—the venerable old AWP—is the…