All posts by William Germano

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The Shortest Generation

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Novak Djokovic: No generation between him and Roger Federer

When Novak Djokovic recently paid tribute to Roger Federer, saying that the Swiss master was admired by players of Djokovic’s generation, many academic types might have had a little weep — and not because none of us will ever be able to grade papers at 130 miles per hour, or whatever the conversion might be from mph to pph.

Djokovic was born in 1987, Federer in 1981. That’s not enough time for a biological cycle in humans (though it wou…

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Shakespeare in the Courtroom

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Marc Antony

Julius Caesar and Otello (the version of Othello by Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito): These are the texts that framed the final remarks of federal Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted last month of the Boston Marathon killings.

The Tsarnaev case moved Judge O’Toole to reach for the kind of precedent that not law but literature makes available.

“One of Shakespeare’s characters observes: ‘The evil that men do lives after them. The…

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As Dull as a Torpedo

penThe ongoing White House v. Congress struggle has recently involved the charge that one side wants to torpedo the other’s plan. That sounds violent, even metaphorically speaking, but torpedo has a more complicated usage history.

In his account of Dr. Johnson’s life, James Boswell reports the Great Cham’s remarking that “Tom Birch is as brisk as a bee in conversation; but no sooner does he take a pen in his hand than it becomes a torpedo to him, and benumbs his faculties.”

The passage occurs in Bo…

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Laude and Clear

indexIt’s commencement season, and we all faced once again the last-minute fumble to figure out a pronunciation for Latin honorifics.

The responsibility for enunciating such things before a rapt audience of parents and well-wishers may fall on different shoulders depending on the institution, but if you’re an academic, there’s an excellent chance you’ll face the problem at one time or another.

The root of the dilemma is the Latin noun laus, meaning praise or commendation.

On the platform, however, a …

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The Right to Ovate, and Other Problems

At Cannes recently, the actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out on the negative response to Gus Van Sant’s new film, The Sea of Trees.

“Anyone has as much right to boo as they have to ovate,” the actor observed.  Before any knickers get twisted over the switch in pronoun number, I should make clear that what stopped me cold was the infinitive form to ovate. Really?  Was I the only reader who looked at this and thought first of ovaries, which as a point of anatomical fact not anyone has?

A little dig…

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George Eliot, Currer Bell, Clara Gazul, and Me

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Clara Gazul

You will recognize the first name as that of one of our greatest novelists, known privately as Mary Ann Evans, author of the immensely satisfying Middlemarch as well as things you were forced to read in high school, like Silas Marner.

Currer Bell requires a bit more familiarity with 19th-century fiction, though hardly a secret. The work published as Jane Eyre: An Autobiography is, so the title page proclaims, “edited by Currer Bell.”  Charlotte Bronte embedded her initials — …

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Friend? or Just ‘-Friendly’?

You will remember the moment, when Frankenstein’s monster utters the word “Friend?” It may be the single best line of dialogue in James Whale’s 1931 movie classic.

My bit of linguistic poking today isn’t about changing social attitudes or expanded horizons of understanding, but about the way the suffix  -friendly is being asked to do so much work for us.

The compound  noun+friendly  has  become a soft marker of empathy, or sensitivity, or acceptance.  It isn’t about friends or friendship, b…

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The ‘-cene’ of Instruction

The recent spate of criticism around the concept of the Anthropocene (first used, says the Oxford English Dictionary, by P.J. Crutzen and E.F. Stoermer in 2000) asks us to consider the period of time within which humans have become the dominant form of life on Planet Earth. Whether that dominance is a good thing or not might depend on whether one views the subject from the perspective of, say, a strip miner, an amoeba, or a hydrogen atom.

The term Anthropocene is, of course, modeled on the tradi…

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Food Story

When Steve Easterbrook, the new chief executive of McDonald’s, recently announced his plans to adjust the chain’s offerings and operating assumptions, he couched his message in terms of the need to “align our food story around the consumer’s definition of quality and value.”

The locution food story is one kettle of fish, with or without tartar sauce and fries.

Is Easterbrook enjoining his executives to get their story straight, as one might want covert operatives to be all on the same page? Or s…

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Must We Mean What We Quote?

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Jonas Tarm, composer; photo by Elena Snow.

The recent controversy over the young composer Jonas Tarm turns on the eleventh-hour discovery, or recognition, that his “March to Oblivion” (“Marsh u Nebuttya,” in a transliteration from Ukrainian) incorporates unplayable music — unplayable not because of its difficulty but because of its use of musical quotation.

The New York Youth Symphony canceled its performance of the work at Carnegie Hall,  reportedly in response to its quotation of a Nazi tune.