All posts by William Germano

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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.

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This. Is. Really. Important.

I know I’m not the only one who’s noticing display text—advertising, announcements, and the like—angling for the reader’s attention by placing a period after each word. So that you have to read it slowly. And feel the importance. Of every word. Of. Every. Word.

This is, I hope, a momentary infatuation with the beleaguered full stop, which typographers and art directors are enlisting to add emphasis to anything, provided the anything is brief, and preferably composed of words not in excess of two…

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Left Sharking

You’ve got to feel sorry for the Right Shark, who unlike the Right Whale, really was on the right, and in the right, too.

As readers of Lingua Franca know, the fabulously expensive entertainment known as the Super Bowl consists of two frequently interrupted episodes of male violence that sandwich the thing many viewers turn in for. I mean, of course, the Halftime Show.

More than one hundred million people watched Super Bowl XLIX, which is apparently played in Latin.

For some of those viewers, …

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Rain Event, Snow Event

LF-8458547874_12fdf2f32e_kWhy have weather when you could have an event?

It sounds like ad copy for some divine meteorological service.

Recently a Chronicle editor posed the question, “When did the usages rain event  and snow event become popular?” To which I would add, “And why did we need these terms at all?”

First, the history. The Google NGram for rain event and snow event shows that the weather gets fancy sometime in the mid 1970s. That’s when the course of rain event starts making its jagged rise, and looking rath…

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Words for Beginners

Ex. 1:  torture. 

Today, class, we will look at a word that is not complicated. Our friends at the Oxford English Dictionary help us get started:

1.a.  The infliction of severe bodily pain, as punishment or a means of persuasion.

Wait, some part of that wasn’t clear? Then let’s follow the OED on to the second, more fully elaborated explanation.

2.a. Severe or excruciating pain or suffering (of body or mind); anguish, agony, torment; the infliction of such.

Not clear yet? Here is a third definiti…

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Ain’t It Awful?

Recently I was at a dinner party where people were using the words awful  and awesome, possibly as antonyms. Awful  was, I thought, used to describe something very bad, awesome something very good.

The words awesome and awful have been doing do-si-do with one another for a while. So are they the same word? And if so, what word is that, exactly?

The Oxford English Dictionary records awful as medieval. Since the ninth century, it’s been the high-toned term of choice meaning “awe-inspiring,” in…

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Turkey Talk

Nobody can explain the turkey.

The expression to talk turkey has been with us for a long time. We’re still not sure where it comes from, though, much less how turkeys got involved. You’d think turkeys had enough to worry about besides English usage. Especially this time of year.

Turkeys mean American Thanksgiving (a retronym, like acoustic guitar—thank you, my many Canadian friends). Which of course is why I’ve turned to British reference works for an explanation as to the meaning of the exp…

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Pediaphilia

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Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” The encyclopedia made us look outward.

No, it’s not what you think. It’s the creeping insistence that everything needs its own encyclopedia.

Older readers of Lingua Franca will remember the era of multivolume encyclopedias. Some of you may have grown up with classy sets of Britannicas. Others may have had their parents acquire a humbler set of Funk & Wagnalls, one volume at a time, at the grocery store, as mine did. The books were offered week by week, letter by letter,…