All posts by Ben Yagoda

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Here’s Looking at You, Narcissist

narcissus

“Narcissus,” by Caravaggio

There’s one word that seems to doggedly follow the Republican nominee for president, and no, the word isn’t Whuuuuuuhhhh???????

Last week, on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show, Jon Stewart called Donald Trump “a thin-skinned narcissist.”

The author David Cay Johnston said of Trump in a Guardian article, “He’s a world-class narcissist.” (The title of the article was “Trump: The Making of a Narcissist.”)

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote, “There’s sort of a gravit…

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English, Italian Style

When I first traveled to Italy, nearly 50 years ago, I don’t recall seeing much public display of English, other than neon signs in Milan’s main square bearing the names of brands like Coca-Cola and Schweppes, and a few familiar phrases in shop windows, such as “Snack Bar” and “Self-service.” I’ve been lucky enough to return to that beautiful country many times since, and I don’t believe there was any change on the this score till the late ’80s, when there appeared T-shirts and sweatshirts beari…

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Is Something the Matter With ‘Black Lives Matter’?

Cartoon by Kris Straub

Cartoon by Kris Straub

 

There are many things I like about the slogan “Black Lives Matter” (which I’ll abbreviate here as BLM). Most important, it addresses what to me is at the very root of racism and therefore of many of our social problems: a deep, usually unexamined feeling among the dominant group, in this case whites, that members of the oppressed group, in this case blacks, are in some way less important, less normal, than they are.

This feeling is the opposite of “white privilege.” It’s…

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Verb-Forming for Fun and Profit

static.playbill.comI recently heard that a gay acquaintance of mine has gotten divorced. I mention his sexual orientation certainly not because there’s anything wrong with it but because it’s relevant to the matter of what the linguist Arnold Zwicky calls “two-part back-formed verbs,” aka 2pbfVs. Zwicky has been cataloguing examples of these, at Language Log and on his own website, since 2008, when he wrote about the verb form gay marry, which he had just encountered in a quote on someone else’s blog: “I did an in…

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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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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…

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Bring It

headWriting on language shibboleths a couple of weeks ago, I pooh-poohed the idea that one needs to be vigilant about not using bring instead of take, or vice versa. I argued:

No one would ever say “Take me the mail,” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with “Bring your shoes to the room.” You just … have to imagine the action from the point of view of the room. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says“A native speaker of English will hardly ever misuse bring or take; the problem ex…

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Racists and Racialists — and What’s the Difference?

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.57.48 AMOn June 7, a New York Times editorial addressed Donald Trump’s remarks that Judge Gonazalo Curiel has “an inherent conflict of interest” in a lawsuit against Trump University because he is “of Mexican heritage.” “Republicans who say they disagree with Mr. Trump’s racialist statements,” the Times declared, “have tried to assuage the public by arguing that he doesn’t really believe those views.”

Racialist is the word that jumps out. The Oxford English Dictionary says it is equivalent to racist but…

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My Favorite Shibboleth

Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton

Early in the word-processing era, it was difficult or in some cases impossible to italicize words, and so one underlined them instead. When doing so, a colleague of mine always took special care not to underline the spaces between the words of a title. That is, instead of The Winds of War, he would write The Winds of War. He endured the chore of several additional keystrokes because he felt that a line under a space is meaningless. This was not unreasonable, but may have put too fi…

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Pivoting Away from ‘Pivot’

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 10.41.46 AMHillary Clinton keeps trying to pivot to the general election. But Bernie Sanders — like a white-haired white Bill Russell — won’t let her.

I will let the pundits break down the politics involved. What interests me is pivot. Originally a noun meaning (in the Oxford English Dictionary‘s words) a “short shaft or pin on which a mechanism turns or oscillates,” it was being used as early as 1841 to refer to the act of turning, as if on a pivot. That’s where the basketball maneuver, and that sport’s n…