Category Archives: Academe


Lectern or Podium?


Prof. Dumbledore stood on a podium to speak from his owl lectern.

Today’s investigation into the Oxford English Dictionary concerns two words, with a small hope that we can figure out what it is we talk in front of, or on, or near, when we’re before our students.

The handsome Latinate word podium originally referred to a raised platform that provided a protected seating area for the emperor. It is, of course, related to the root pod-, from the word for foot, and most senses of the word invoke t…


A Postcard From Bilbao


Guggenheim Musem Bilbao, Louise Bourgeois sculpture Maman in foreground. [[Photo by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz, Wikimedia Commons]]

Bilbao, Spain

People whose experience of Spain goes back many decades tell me that Bilbao was once a nondescript little steel town on a polluted river, best driven past and avoided on your way to somewhere nicer. But today, as I stroll along the riverfront walk overlooked by the grandeur of the University of Deusto, and watch cormorants dive into the Nervio…


Prepositions as Conjunctions, Whales as Fish


Imagine that the national government controlled education down to fine details of what to teach and how to test it, and in your own subject the government required that modern research should be ignored, and unreconstructed 18th-century beliefs should be taught.

Welcome to my world. I’m not talking about the attempts of dull-witted US school boards to push creationism into the science curriculum. I’m talking about a sample grammar test published by the Standards and Testing Agency of the Britis…


Is [Blank]gasm a Thing?

On a recent Daily Show, Trevor Noah casually slipped the term nerdgasm  into his riff on the new Star Wars trailer.

Wait, what? Did Noah just deploy a term denoting a family-friendly eruption of delight not remotely connected with sex? Is  [blank]gasm now a thing? Is -gasm  the new like? 

Only last week I walked past a store called Shoegasm. This Manhattan retailer describes itself as “a trendsetting shoe parlor”  offering  “shoes you’ll want at prices you’ll love.” OK, so somethi…


Spider’s Web of Worrisome Words

Spider-2Here’s a creepy story for Halloween. And it’s all true.

Half a century ago — on the first of March 1965, to be exact — there emerged from the midst of the increasingly excited and politicized student body at the University of California at Berkeley a new twice-a-month publication with the ominous title Spider. It reported and commented on the turmoil among student activists, including the affray nicknamed the “filthy speech movement” in parody of the earnest Free Speech Movement of the previous …


When I Hear the Word ‘Culture’ …

7113768205_0728435aaf_zThere’s a debate going on in our department at the moment over teacher evaluation forms. The current questionnaire asks students to rate their instructors on whether they “ignited an interest in the language and corresponding culture.” Some people in the English department argue that the question isn’t appropriate for our courses. They have two reasons. First, which culture? Our staff is peppered with Americans, Australians, Brits, Indians, South Africans and even a German or two. And our studen…


Snapping Fingers

I have recently encountered an endearing trend among high-school and college students, informally as well as in classrooms and in larger gatherings: collective finger-snapping. Once, in the middle of a lecture I delivered at the University of Oxford, someone began expressing approval by snapping her fingers, and within seconds the entire hall followed her. The same thing has happened in class discussions about varieties of love and ways of expressing them. At first the sound was distracting, but…


Being a Pronoun

Chapter 5 of Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795) begins thus:

A PRONOUN is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word.

The definition is useless: flagrantly inadequate. Yet after more than two centuries people still repeat it. Chapter 5 of Nevile M. Gwynne’s book Gwynne’s Grammar (2011), like almost all other grammar books addressed to the general public, simply paraphrases Murray:

A pronoun is a word which st…


Hazing: an Update

The house in Pennsylvania where Michael Deng, a student a Baruch College, died in a fraternity ritual. Photograph by Niko J. Kallianiotis, The New York Times, Redux



Stupid and brutal practices are not unknown in academe.

Among them (and the list may not be small), is the ritual of hazing. The term is less old than I thought. While the Oxford English Dictionary  provides an 1825 definition as “a sound beating, a thrashing,” it isn’t until a bit later in the 19th century that the dictio…


O Mentee, Go Dissertate!


Two words – two quite awful words – have crept into the bosom of academe.

For a long time they’ve been on my list of terms I’d wish away if I could, but being powerless on such matters I’ll blog about them instead.

As Lingua Franca readers know, we academics are a caring tribe, helpful and attentive to the needs of our younger colleagues, especially those working on their Ph.D.s.

They are, most of them, writing dissertations. We mentor  these writers, and that is as it should be.

The word disse…