Category Archives: Uncategorized


From Seneca to Self-Help

HowProustIn 1997, Alain de Botton published his book How Proust Can Change Your Life. I was charmed by it. I remember using it in a course on cultural criticism for a graduate class that had a mix of theorists and creative writers. I thought of de Botton’s book as a model we could adopt. Here was an original work of criticism that taught me something about Proust while it playfully adopted a popular or low-brow form of writing — that is, the self-help book.

Like every other self-respecting academic, I’…


Waiting for the Word of 2014

For 2014 there seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year, as I said last week. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of candidates. Just last week, for example, the news from Washington was generously sprinkled with enhanced interrogation techniques, the disputed CIA practice for obtaining information, and cromnibus, the disputed Congressional practice for obtaining government funding.

The lack of an obvious WOTY 2014 doesn’t mean that the American Dialect Society won’…


‘-y’ Not?

This all went down in the last month:

  • Facebook comment: “As I know from my rednecky upstate second hometown. … “
  • Email from a friend: “This morning I was thinking that my hairdresser is getting so Jesus-y with me.”
  • Headline from the Baltimore City Paper: “College Guys, Stop Being So Rapey.”
  • Homer Simpson line, to Bart: “Hey, boy, we’re supposed to be acting religiousy.” (Admittedly, this came from a 2010 episode, “The Greatest Story Ever D’Oh’ed,” but I saw it a couple of weeks ago during the

Cursing in a Second Language

Conchita Wurst, 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner

Europeans cast their votes this week in a European Union parliamentary poll in which nationalist, Euro-skeptic parties are expected to do well—suggesting waning enthusiasm for the European project, and growing xenophobia.

I saw evidence to the contrary, however, on display two weeks ago in the final rounds of the Eurovision Song Contest. (Americans make fun of the marathon of mediocre music and canned camp aesthetics, but if soccer’s anything t…


An Aha! Moment

Fede, a Venezuelan student of mine, whenever he greets me, starts with “Epa, Ilan.”

Epa is an interjection, an expression of emotion, that is, frankly, almost impossible to translate. In English, what Fede means is a combination of hey, whoa, and howdayado, that is, a slangy form of greeting as well as a manifestation of surprise.

I love that he displays emotion so effusively—and so fluidly. I’m also puzzled by the difficulty I had in the previous paragraph to convey it in translation. That …


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, …