All posts by William Germano


The (Melo)drama of English Grammar

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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…


Commencement, Anyone?


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…


‘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…


His Very C’s, His U’s, and His T’s


The Shakespeare world has been abuzz recently with news of a 1580 copy of Baret’s Alvearie, a four-language dictionary, heavily annotated and, according to its owners, possibly by Shakespeare’s own hand. There has been much in the press, popular and professional, on the plausibility of the claim.

Jennifer Howard has covered the story in these pages. Adam Gopnik has used the event as the basis of his recent New Yorker meditation on the inexhaustible cult of Shakespeare.

Regarding the Alvearie,


Writing and Manure



Image via Wikimedia Commons

My last post was about Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a play that apparently isn’t done with me yet.

You will remember that the mystery of Jack Worthing’s birth is revealed in that play’s final moments—Jack turns out to be Ernest Moncrieff, Algy’s elder brother. Happy ending, three marriages, curtain. All the play’s puzzles have been solved.

Except for the matter of dung. We really do need to talk about the dung, Mr. Worthing.

The word worthing has a…


Miss Prism’s Mistakes

In the greatest English theatrical comedy of the 19th century, a peculiar series of events involving an infant and a handbag are the subject of an 11th-hour confession by one of my favorite literary inventions, a governess named Miss Prism.

There are many reasons to love Miss Prism, among them the fact that in her youth she wrote a three-volume novel. Like all of Oscar Wilde’s creations, she has more than a bit of the playwright in her (Miss Prism is given to saying things like “I speak hort…


Get Me the Concierge


Image via Wikimedia Commons

“My husband used to be the concierge,” announces the woman in the window, “but he’s dead. Now I’m the concierge.” Movie fans will recognize the moment in Mel Brooks’s The Producers when our hapless protagonists approach the residence of the furtive ex-Nazi and pigeon fancier Franz Liebkind, author of the soon-to-be immortal musical “Springtime for Hitler.”

Liebkind’s apartment building is nothing special. It doesn’t have anything as glamorous as a concierge, just an u…


Bullimong Drassocks and Other Problems


Thomas Watson, the Puritan
(via Wikimedia Commons)

When it comes to innovations in language, give me a Puritan. Not a regressive, arch-conservative type, whose  pleasures might be in the way things allegedly once were and forever should be, but a linguistically fun-loving fellow with buckled shoes and a closet full of black.

Poking around in Perry Miller’s classic anthology, The American Puritans, one might come upon many a tasty morsel of linguistic innovation.

To take just one example, in the M…


Pedal to the Medal


Erin Hamlin made Olympic history as the first American to medal in singles luge.
(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The manufactured snow has barely melted at the Sochi Winter Olympics, but I’ll take a moment to reflect on what I thought was the rise of the verb to medal, meaning of course to win gold, silver, or bronze in Olympic competition.

If  you’re an  Olympic athlete, you want to medal. You want to medal even more than you want to win a medal. If you’re covering the Olympics, you want to use the verb t…


The Lesser Kudos


Ammelaphus imberbis, formerly Tragelaphus imberbis, the lesser kudu
(Image via Wikimedia)

Kudos: the Greek word κδος means, according to the OED, “praise or renown,”  implying  that the person who possesses that quality has done something to merit it.

On the rare occasion when I have to say it out loud, I find myself taking pains to pronounce the second syllable so that it rhymes not with nose but with MS-DOS. That reference gives you an idea how long it’s been since I’ve said it aloud.

The word…