All posts by Ben Yagoda

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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.”…

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How ‘Offline’ Came to Mean ‘Online’

I read this sentence in The New York Times not long ago: “Most evenings, before watching late-night comedy or reading emails on his phone, Matt Nicoletti puts on a pair of orange-colored glasses that he bought for $8 off the Internet.”

The phrase that caught my inner ear was “off the Internet.” It sounded odd because, given the widespread use of the expressions online and on the Internet, one would expect the preposition to be on. 

A possible explanation for the “bought it off the Internet” for…

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The Re-Creationist Myth

The journalistic missteps, errors, and omissions in Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” began to be exposed shortly after it was published last November. They were exhaustively described in an Columbia School of Journalism report, issued April 5, that’s even longer than the original article–13,000 words versus 9,000.  (Rolling Stone removed the article from its website but it can be viewed courtesy of the Internet Archive.)

The commentary has detailed many poor decisions made by the writer of the…

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Confidence Game

“To write you must have a streak of arrogance.” —Richard Hugo

At a comedy show I was at not long ago, the stand-up was doing a bit about how the main reason he was happy to be married was not having to deal with getting married. In the middle of it, a woman near the front of the audience shouted out, “Him too!” and gestured at the guy next to her.

There was a pause.

Then the comic looked at her and said something to the effect of, “You just messed up my act. But putting that aside, I’m very, ver…

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Oh, Man

I did a mental double take the first time I heard my wife, Gigi, say the word policeman. She gave the second and third syllables roughly equal stress and said -man with an ash sound (what was traditionally referred to as a short vowel), represented in International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /æ/. It came out the way I would say Batman or milkman. To me, the -man in policeman has a reduced stress and a schwa vowel (/ə/ in IPA), as in woman.

I actually must have done a physical double take because…

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Iwo Jima Letter

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On Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents on March 22, 1945 — almost precisely 70 years ago. He was a Chicago kid, 20 years old at the time. (The gap in age between him and my wife is explained by the fact that Bob’s mother was the oldest of twelve children, while my mother-in-law was the third youngest and became a mother relatively late in life.) The address is given only as “IN PORT” and the letter begins:

I gue…