All posts by Allan Metcalf

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A Really Bad Spell

bad_spellingThere are bad spellers, and then there are really bad spellers. Most of the time when we gripe about bad spellers we mean the first kind, who are actually for the most part pretty good.

It’s like the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, with its motto “Wretched writers welcome.” Wretched they may be, but they actually have to be  pretty skillful to come up with parodies of Bulwer-Lytton’s fulsome 19th-century prose. Here’s the 2014 contest winner, by Betsy Doorman:

“When the dead moose floated into vi…

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Their Excellencies, the Conference of Secretaries

What do you call the person  in charge of a scholarly society?

No, it’s not president, though there is such an officer. But in a learned society, to be elected president is generally an honor accorded a leading scholar in the field. To be elected president means recognition of one’s academic accomplishments. And there’s a new one every one or two years.

That’s the presidency. Ever since George Washington, presidents get respect from that title alone.

True, the president does have some work to do…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …

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Our Own Devices

From The Scottish Pulpit, 1838, courtesy of Google Books:

“For should He, by whom kings reign and  princes decree justice, withdraw that secret influence by which he directs the thoughts of men to the accomplishment of his own objects; … should he surrender the guidance of our concerns solely to the exercise of mere human talents, at the expense of  the glory due to God, even yet, without the imposition of famine, or pestilence, or sword — those more immediate executioners of divine judgm…

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May Day! May Day! May Day!

Today isn’t just any day. It’s May Day, the first of May.

Geoffrey Chaucer knew it was special. In “The Legend of Good Women,” he wrote that he tossed his book aside when May came:

On bokes for to rede I me delyte . . .
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules synge,
And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
Farewel my bok, and my devocioun!

And on the first day of May, from before Chaucer’s time to our own, northern countries have celebrated the end of …

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Getting Down to Brass Tacks — and Silver Ones

It’s time to get down to brass tacks and catch up with Comments on Etymology, that unique journal edited and self-published eight times each academic year by Gerald Cohen at the Missouri University of Science & Technology. The journal is on paper only, but you can reach the editor/publisher by email at: gcohen@mst.edu.

So far this year Comments on Etymology has documented in detail the possible or likely origins of abacus, kibosh, ukulele, and jazz. Now brass tacks has its turn. The latest issue…

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The Double Meaning of ‘Bi-’

Poster by Chris Corneal, Michigan State U.

When we clash about usage, sometimes the arguments are so fierce because the stakes are so small. Does it really matter, for example, whether we say “20 items or fewer” or “20 items or less”? Of course it does, to those who see “less” as a sign of the collapse of civilization, but not much to the rest of us. Either way, there’s no question what the sign means. Count the contents of your cart, and direct it toward the appropriate aisle.

Most other questi…

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Requiem for a Dictionary? or Life Support?

A forensic linguist once used DARE to find a kidnapper, whose ransom note read “leave the money on the devil strip,” a term used in northern Ohio. Image courtesy DARE archives.

Since the 19th century, one of the grandest of scholarly projects in the humanities has been the making of historical dictionaries. These are comprehensive multivolume dictionaries that aim to cover a language in all its historical depth and contemporary breadth. The best known of these is the Oxford English Dictionary, b…

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Naming the Numbers of March Madness

As warriors of the hard court advance from contest to contest in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, the names of the stages of the struggle follow a heroic poetic pattern going back beyond even the Old English age of Beowulf. This pattern is alliteration, the repetition not of the ends of words (as in rhyme) but the beginnings.

The whole event has the alliterative title March Madness, repeating initial M. And the tournament, encompassing 68 tribes or clans, begins with competition …

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Me and I, Sailing to Skye

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), of “Outlander.”

Why me? Why I?

That’s the grammatical puzzle posed by a newly popular Scottish ballad. It’s a strange song, as well as a haunting one, that begins every episode of the Starz series Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling novels, the TV series is an impressively realistic  re-creation of life in Scotland in the 1740s, to which the 20th-century heroine, Claire Beauchamp, finds herself transported. This happe…