May 16, 2013, 12:01 am
Quickly, now, without checking any dictionaries or usage guides: which of the following expressions is original, standard usage?
- Once and awhile
- Set and stone
- Try and get
- Spit and image
- All and all
- Hand and hand
- Tongue and cheek
I’ve run into all of these recently, mostly in student papers, but also in published work. So many of our habitual expressions have lost their connection to the original meaning that students—and sometimes professional writers—set them down as they sound without regard to whatever sense they might make. Given the aural similarity of and, in, and -ing, it’s no surprise that malapropisms like in this day in age crop up—for how often do we actually think about something being common in this day and also in this age, or era? And why would we?
If we think carefully or have background knowledge, of course, we can and do make some sense…
May 6, 2013, 12:01 am
Obama at the Correspondents’ Dinner: “But I kid Mitch McConnell. … “
At 10:14 PM on April 27, Barack Obama took the podium at the Washington Hilton to the tune of “All I do Is Win,” by DJ Khaled. According to the official White House transcript (which includes indications of laughter and applause), the president began by telling the crowd at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
How do you like my new entrance music? (Applause.) Rush Limbaugh warned you about this — second term, baby. (Laughter and applause.) We’re changing things around here a little bit. (Laughter.) Actually, my advisers were a little worried about the new rap entrance music. (Laughter.) They are a little more traditional. They suggested that I should start with some jokes at my own expense, just take myself down a peg. I was like, “Guys…
May 3, 2013, 12:01 am
As we approach the annual rites, the degree of dudgeon rises again. Obama may say it; Barbara Walters may say it; our beloved children, on whom we have showered more than half our income annually over four years of university education, may crow it, but we as a nation of tut-tutters get the heebie-jeebies when we hear it: She graduated college. “I immediately went to the bathroom to be sick,” wrote one online commenter about hearing the term on a news broadcast. Another suggested that one can graduate college only by measuring it out as portions, as in the OED’s 1834 example, “Graduate that tangent, and place the crest of the traverse on a parallel plane ten feet above it.”
True, that august reference tool does not use the verb “to graduate” transitively except as the obverse of the usage to which the tut-tutters object. That is, Oxford can graduate you, and you can be…
April 11, 2013, 12:01 am
Pullum’s e-mail read, “Most things, yes. It’s a bit of a problem. I have often written pieces that then had to be just tossed in the electronic trash because he published a longer and better discussion before I was finished. And I ought to be five hours ahead of both of you, on UK time.”
He was responding to my own e-mail, which asked, simply, “Does Liberman get to EVERYTHING first?”
“Liberman” would be Mark Liberman, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, and the co-founder, along with Lingua Franca’s own Geoffrey Pullum, of the super-awesome blog Language Log. The sheer number of Mark’s posts demands an adjective that goes well beyond prolific. The upsetting thing is that they’re usually really good, too.
Maddening as well is his nose for what’s in the linguistic wind right now—a quality that I associate more with journalists than…
April 9, 2013, 12:01 am
The DARE map (top), with state codes, compared with a geographic map. DARE’s map is based on population density as of the 1960s. It shows responses DARE collected during fieldwork in 1965-70.
Where does a dictionary reside nowadays?
In the cloud, of course.
But what if was created before there was a cloud? Then you’d have to look for it on the ground, in ink on paper.
And on paper, perhaps the most monumental lexicographic enterprise in the field of American English has just been completed: the Dictionary of American Regional English, with some 60,000 entries and thousands of maps, published in six 8¾-by-11¼-inch volumes by Harvard University Press. Too bad it’s not online. RIP, right?
Wrong. In this century, if you’re a dictionary, you have a chance for an afterlife online. You need to be…
March 15, 2013, 12:01 am
Mike Krzyzewski, coach at Duke, whose team generates more than a few well-worn descriptives
(In his heyday, Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliché Expert, regularly graced the pages of The New Yorker, offering his two cents on the Silver Screen, the Great White Way, the National Pastime, and other arenas where catchphrases and bromides rule the roost. Although his wingman, Frank Sullivan, met his maker in 1976, Mr. Arbuthnot has improbably reappeared from time to time, including in the pages of The Chronicle. With the NCAA men’s basketball tournament set to begin, Mr. Arbuthnot is baaa-aaack.)
A. Naw, I’m good.
Q. Selection Sunday is just two days away. How do you break down the brackets?
A. No question, a lot of programs are on the…
March 7, 2013, 12:01 am
My mother talked to the birds. She’d stand under the Jonathan apple tree in our Missouri back yard and whistle up a cardinal or a yellow warbler or a black-capped chickadee, just by changing the melody and timbre of her whistle. “But what are you saying to them?” I’d ask as the birds tipped their heads quizzically from the perches in the tree.
“I’m just telling them hello,” she’d answer. “Letting them know they’re safe.”
Which they weren’t, always, given our cat, whose mouth she would sometimes force open to let an unwary and miraculously unhurt bird fly out.
Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are suggesting, not that Mom could really communicate with the birds, but that the language she used in her other verbal communications could have evolved from, or be related to, birdsong.
It’s a lovely idea, but less because of the…
February 4, 2013, 12:01 am
People love words. We may not use them adroitly, spell them correctly, or like those who possess larger word-hoards than we, but The New York Times minifeature “That Should Be a Word” draws thousand of views for coinages like lostentatious (“overly proud of your downfall”). And there are more than a dozen Web sites devoted to the exhumation of obsolete words that should be made to stand and walk again. One of my favorites is Heather Carreiro’s 20 Obsolete English Words That Should Make a Comeback.” Her list includes such satisfying mouthfuls as ludibrious (“apt to be a subject of jest or mockery”) and perissology (“use of more words than are necessary”).
Some of Heather’s words, of course, are pure regional slang, like the Scots malagrugrous (“dismal”). Others, like yemeles (“careless, heedless, negligent”), seem to have been in mainstream use for several…
February 1, 2013, 12:01 am
American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society, is unique, in the old sense of “one of a kind.” It is the one and only academic journal that focuses on what’s happening with the English language in the United States.
The editorial policy is more inclusive, allowing articles on “the English language in the Western Hemisphere” and “other languages influencing English or influenced by it,” but the center of attention remains American English.
Many people are concerned enough to write articles about what our language should be doing; look no further than Lingua Franca for examples. Few people, however, take the trouble to do research and find out, for better or worse, what our language actually is doing. Those few find room for their research in American Speech and its companion annual monograph, Publication of the American Dialect Society.
January 25, 2013, 12:01 am
One of the greatest lexicographic enterprises of the 20th century has now reached its goal, with publication of the sixth and final volume by Harvard University Press. It’s the Dictionary of American Regional English, recording the copious variety of words we use in the 50 United States.
The first five volumes cover regional vocabulary A-Z with some 50,000 entries. The sixth volume is lagniappe, with maps, index, questionnaire, bibliography, and more.
If you have the dictionary at hand, you can look up the meaning of words like these:
boodle (New England)
chankings (New England)
enty (South Carolina, Georgia coasts)
flummadiddle (New England)
gnat’s eyebrow (South Midland, West)
hincty (Black speakers)
ish (Minnesota, Wisconsin)
Johnboat (Mississippi and Ohio valleys)
knurl (New England)
lonesome waters (Kentucky)