All posts by Ben Yagoda

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The Prose Stylings of Antonin Scalia

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Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was a memorable week at the Supreme Court. And the justices handed down some important decisions, too.

The memorability, in my nerdy world, stemmed from a double dose of dissenting opinions from Justice Antonin Scalia, that one-man movement to let the rhetorical freak flag fly.

In the matter of the Affordable Care Act, Scalia accused the majority of “interpretive jiggery-pokery.” The OED notes that the term derives from a venerable Scots expression, joukery-pawkery…

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The Most Beautiful Word of All

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Henry James

Sitting on my patio the other day, listening to the birds, sipping a glass of raspberry seltzer, and admiring the contrast of the orange day lilies with the blue and pink hydrangea, I was reminded of Henry James’s remark that “summer afternoon” are the two most beautiful words in the English language.

The comment was attributed to him by Edith Wharton. The Master sketched out some of his reasoning in the opening of The Portrait of a Lady:

Under certain circumstances there are few hou…

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Simile When You Say That, Partner

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Patsy Cline’s voice inspired a memorable simile.

When I lived in New York City as a young man, I used to like to wander over to Washington Square Park, in Greenwich Village, on summer evenings. What I found there—and what drew me there, it now occurs to me—was virtuosity.  The Frisbee players catching the disk in fancy ways, the skateboarders and roller skaters doing their tricks, and street musicians improvising with their instruments and voices were all, not to put too fine a point on it,…

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Pluralism Marches On

Catching up on New Yorkers, I happened on a poem by John Koethe, which begins:

It’s a great poem, but, needless to say, what mainly interested me was Koethe’s use of covers band instead of cover band — to mean a musical combo whose repertoire consists of songs popularized by other performers. It was a new example, to me, of a phenomenon I’ve discussed in this space before — the growing pluralization of attributive nouns, such as Yankees fan replacing Yankee fan. As with such phrases as jobs (in…

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Tweeting Prepositions

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Toward the end of NPR’s Planet Money podcast last week, the host, Jacob Goldstein, said: “You can tweet at us at ‘planetmoney.’ You can tweet at me at ‘jacobgoldstein.’”

In March, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter addressed the U.S. Cyber Command task force and said (I quote from a transcript posted on Lexis-Nexis), “If you do nothing else and get nothing else out of this encounter today, I want you to do one thing, which is to go home tonight or make a call or tweet at your family, or do what…

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‘Cheeky Nando’s’

Humility is always a good thing. I got a dose of it recently, courtesy of a BuzzFeed article posted to Facebook by a friend of mine, Siobhan Wagner, a journalist who was born in the U.S, but has been living in London for nine years. The article was called “Americans On Tumblr Are Trying To Find Out What A ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ Is And Are Struggling” and concerned a meme that had become popular in England. Here’s an example:

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As the title suggests, the article detailed the exasperation expressed by Am…

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The End of Irony. Or Not.

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David Letterman played it straight after 9/11: “New York is the greatest city in the world.”

“What’s all this irony and pity?”
“What? Don’t you know about Irony and Pity?”
“No. Who got it up?”
“Everybody. They’re mad about it in New York.”
–Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

To paraphrase Philip Larkin, irony began in 1973, between Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Randy Newman’s fifth LP. The key text, for me, was the first paragraph of the preface of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions

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The Genius Card

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Joseph Mitchell (Image by Anne Hall/Pantheon)

The phone buzzed on a sunny fall day as I was taking a stroll on the beautiful campus of Swarthmore College, near my home. I looked at the number—it had New York’s 212 area code, but otherwise I didn’t recognize it. I took a chance that it wasn’t a robo call and answered it.

It wasn’t a robo call. It was Gay Talese, the great nonfiction writer. Nearly the first words out of his mouth were, “Do you know about this new biography of Joseph Mitchell?”

I …

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Thugs Like Us

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A tweet by Questlove, the drummer for The Roots.

In a press conference a couple of days after the 2014 Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who had made rather obnoxiously boastful comments after the game, was asked if he was bothered by being repeatedly referred to as a “thug.” (The sports website Deadspin calculated that thug was uttered 625 times on American television the day following the Seahawks’ win.) Sherman, a Stanford University graduate, said he was,

because i…

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‘A Piece of Cake’

It started with an email from my eclectic friend Wes Davis. He said he’d been reading Tinkerbelle, by, he told me, “Robert Manry, a copy editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who, in 1965, took a leave of absence from his job and sailed a 13-and-a-half-foot wooden boat across the Atlantic, from Falmouth, Mass., to Falmouth, England.” He’d come upon a passage he thought would interest me. Manry is just starting out and it’s a beautiful day, “the wind strong enough to keep us moving along briskly.”…