Category Archives: Uncategorized


Academic Language, Codified

DNA wordlA new semester of classes started at German universities this week, which means I’ve spent the last few days asking fresh rounds of students about their language goals. The greatest number in any class want, above all, to improve their speaking skills. But a significant group has also mentioned vocabulary expansion. Given that most of the students are on course to complete master’s degrees in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering, which at the Technical University of Munich means mos…




Image courtesy Tufts Observer

Our ABC seems to have changed dramatically before our very eyes and no one is making a fuss. Not that it would matter.

It used to be that the alphabet was a sequence of 26 letters, from A to Z. The letter A came first for reasons that, as far as I gather, are arbitrary. Other than historical loyalty, there is no explanation—neither phonetic nor graphic—why it is at the beginning. The aleph in Hebrew starts the alphabet, and other Middle Eastern alphabets, such as th…




“The Battle of Jericho,” Gustave Doré

“And the Canaanites slew the Amirites, because they had done evil in the name of linguistic brevity.”

That punishing thought may not actually show up in any of the Biblical accounts, but in recent months the amirites  have invaded my social media. My first reaction (I’d been looking at a lot of Italian librettos recently) was that an amirite  was some Italian or Latin second-person plural I didn’t get. But of course it isn’t, it’s just am I right reduced to …


‘Love’: Final Exam


(Artwork by Dalton Ghetti)

I’m thrilled to have you in the course “Love.” My intention as teacher is to make you think, to push you to unforeseen boundaries. To achieve this, I will do a single—rather ambitious—thing throughout the entire semester: define the word in our title.

What do we mean when we say I love you? Is there a debt we incur? Is this a solely human emotion? Has it changed over time? That is, did the Greeks understand love the same way we do today? Together we’ll look at an as…


Nonknowledge (and Why It’s Good in Editors)

LondonmapLondon taxi drivers are required to have “the knowledge,” an almost photographic memory of the city’s topographic intricacies. Editors have something else, and maybe just the  opposite.

What makes a good editor? In particular, a good scholarly editor? Every author of a scholarly book is likely to believe that the project was a success because of the editor’s involvement. “She got it.” “He knows this stuff—and he saw what I was doing.”  “How smart of the editor to recognize my brilliance.” Well, …


Dr. King’s Music

Listening to NPR replays of audio clips from the 1963 March on Washington, I found myself listening once again to Dr King’s most famous minutes of air time. This time, though, I heard in the “I have a dream” trope something I hadn’t heard quite before, and that’s its music.

It’s probably no coincidence that this summer I’ve been working on a book about music and Shakespeare. I’ve been absorbed in thinking about phrasing and long lines, and the ways in which language gets pulled apart when mu…


Thinking of You (and Here’s the Card to Prove It)

Every once in a while, even in the age of e-mail and Paperless Post, a professor needs to send an old-fashioned greeting card, one of those folded notes with lovely pictures and great effusions of sentiment printed on sturdy cardboard stock. Outside of a hymnal, the greeting card may be the only place most people read verse on purpose.

The greeting-card business has seen a lot of changes in 30 years. Now cards are in the drug store (in Aisle 8, just past the aspirin), or they’re near the holiday…



Sad news from Germany: the British Telegraph reported this week that the Germans are decommissioning what seems to have been the language’s longest word, the little mouthful that is the title of my post today.

The term, which the Telegraph translates as “law delegating beef label monitoring,” apparently arose during the 1990s in response to bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Spawned by a crisis, the R-word may now be the first linguistic fatality attributable to mad cow disease.

It is perhaps too…


The Auction-House of Language

imagesFour decades ago, Fredric Jameson analyzed structuralism and formalism in an important book he called The Prison-House of Language. The title alluded to an aphorism in which Nietzsche cautioned that we’re stuck thinking within language’s limits (“in dem sprachlichen Zwange”).

The phrase “prison-house of language” seeped into the scholarly aquifer, perhaps getting an unintended assist from Foucault, whose own landmark work cheerfully directed us to similarities between social organization and pri…


First Word Problems

My last post was on correspondence closers—those expressions of fidelity and endearment on which the seamless fabric of academia depends. In that post I paused to admire the French use of elaborated closers.

At the front end of academic correspondence, however, nobody baroques it up like the Germans. Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt is a mouthful, but it’s standard issue in the world of male German academics. We couldn’t easily translate that gesture into English. The honorable Profes…