All posts by William Germano

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Czars in Their Eyes

Boris Godunov, czar of all Russia, 1598-1605

It’s been a big month for the czars.

The White House has appointed Ron Klain as Ebola czar. Not capo or boss, but czar, the Russian term (also transliterated as tsar) related to Latin Caesar and German Kaiser.

What’s with American English and czar, concept and word? Is it ours now, or do we still need to mark it off in some way?

HuffPo and The Washington Times deploy the term in roman font without typographic qualification. NPR has taken a more circu…

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The Intentional Fallacy

A fellow educator has brought to my attention the rise of intentional as a signifying term in academic life. If you haven’t noticed it yet, you will.

Intentional is a word with at least two categories of meaning.

The first sense of intentional may be found in the concept of intentional community.  Those who are part of a convent, a kibbutz, a commune— apparently things that begin with a k sound—might all be described as members of intentional communities.

I don’t love the phrase, but I get the…

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Dudgeons and Dragons

High dudgeon. No it’s not a charming village outside of Oxford, but it’s a place all right, and it’s where a lot of us academic types live.

The Google NGram Viewer would suggest that dudgeon, meaning something like a fit of temper, enjoyed its heyday in the century or before World War II, a point at which, perhaps, the scale and language for anger and outrage was recalibrated.

Dudgeon is a lovely word, not to be confused with gudgeon, about which more in a moment.

The OED’s first definition for

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Truth in Adjectivizing

As sure as students return to campus in autumn, this is the time of year when  Starbucks releases its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a beverage that seems to have a particularly vocal following. I’ve ordered  it myself. It’s sweet and scented and, unless you hold the cream, very rich.

Recently I’ve noticed a pushback, though, and not from health-conscious types. People are complaining about the absence of pumpkin in pumpkin spice latte, as if this were the coffee drinkers’ equivalent of a WikiLeak.

Recipe…

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‘Tis Nieuw to Thee

On August 26, 1664, the urban ancestor of the town in which I live changed its name. The English arrived, only four years after the restoration of their own monarchy, and threw out the Dutch. New York was born, sort of.

That was 350 years ago. On August 25th, the day before the anniversary, The New York Times reported this:

“Finally, on Sept. 8, the largely defenseless settlement tolerated a swift and bloodless regime change: New Amsterdam was immediately renamed New York. It would evolve into…

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An Unexpected English Lesson

So I walk into the little dry cleaners near my office and these are the first words I hear:

“Where were you?  In bed with your—Polack!”

For a split second I’m stopped in my tracks.

I listened for a moment to the voice coming from some unidentified space between the full-length mirror and the ironing board. The invisible speaker was a woman, a familiar one at that, and boy was she angry.

The voice didn’t belong to the tailor and store manager, a warm Korean woman who beamed as she always does whe…

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Hard Facts

How long will the meeting last? I asked the caller. We had a visiting group coming to campus. They had a busy schedule. The meeting would end by noon, I was told, because the group had a hard out.

For a moment, the line went dead.  Seriously? A hard out?  Was a hard out  the equivalent of a really good excuse, like a sick aunt who needed to be driven to the clinic?  (“So sorry I can’t make the company rolfing workshop, but Aunt Tilda couldn’t do a thing without me.”)

But no, a hard out is an imm…

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The (Melo)drama of English Grammar

photo1 (2)

Title page of Bullions

I’ve been browsing through 19th-century grammar books. Yes, on purpose.

On my desk is an 1846 copy of The Principles of English Grammar; Comprising the Substance of the Most Approved English Grammars Extant, With Copious Exercises in Parsing and Syntax; and an Appendix of Various and Useful Matter, a popular text by the Rev. Peter Bullions, D.D., professor of language in the Albany (New York) Academy.

I hope the reverend’s royalties had an escalator clause. The copy I’m ho…

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Commencement, Anyone?

Commencement_2012_(7349144966)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So we’ve made it through commencement, many of us, anyway. I had two in May—the graduation of my son, Chris (with honors—hey, I am a parent),  from Northeastern with a double major in computer science and video-game design, which means two fields too difficult for his father. A couple of weeks later I was at Cooper Union’s own graduation rites, where I get to sit on the stage and try not to fidget under hot lights. Janet Napolitano spoke at the Northe…

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‘Origins Unknown’

shenanigansIt’s such an American thing, an impartial observer might say: taking pride in an unclear ancestry. But as lovers of words know, etymology, like genealogy, gets mixed up in interesting ways.

Most words have traceable origins. Sometimes, though, we have nothing to go on, and so we get the dictionary’s best guesses:

• from Wolof (?)

possibly related to Old French

altered (?)

I’m particularly fond of dictionary entries that have “origins unknown” or “origins obscure,” or that exist in other stat…