Category Archives: Varia

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Free Speech, the Rough and the Smooth

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Free speech attacked yet again. Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, angered somehow by the privilege of growing up in peaceful Denmark rather than war-ravaged Palestine, sprayed bullets from an M-95 at random into the Krudttønden cultural center simply because a debate about free speech was being held there. He killed a filmmaker. (Later he killed a volunteer security man at a Bat Mitzvah celebration just in case we had missed his motivation. We get it: Islamist radicals hate Jews just as much as the…

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Baaack to the Future

I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer last week and read an article by Jeremy Roebuck about how a judicial ruling had revived the onetime local news anchor Alycia Lane’s long-dormant lawsuit against her former station. Here’s the line my eye was drawn to: “‘We’re back,’ Lane’s attorney Paul R. Rosen singsonged in an interview Friday, giving his best Poltergeist impression.”

You know that singsong. It’s an ascending musical fourth, then a descending third, with the word back elongated into two sy…
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Nice Going, Genius

Scalia: Sarcastic

Scalia: Sarcastic

In the slim annals of professorial humor, one of the cherished entries concerns an anthropological linguistics conference where the speaker declaims, “In languages all over the globe, one finds examples of the double negative denoting affirmation, but never the double positive denoting negation.” At which point a guy in the back of the room stands up and says, “Yeah, sure.”

I’ve been pondering sarcasm since Adam Liptak’s recent New York Times article about a law review essay by…

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Me and Chris Jones, We Got a Thing Goin’ On

MS-MRGender neutrality, however loudly announced in official pronouncements or in the news, creeps into our own set of norms on little cat feet. In my case, I realized it had made another inroad when I was settling in at a symphony performance and heard the voice over the loudspeaker: Ladies and Gentlemen, please silence your cellphones and other electronic devices.

Why Ladies and Gentlemen? I thought. Why can’t he simply say, Symphony Patrons? Must he remind us at the outset of our socially assigned…

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Saving El Gordo

(Credit: We Love Philosophy)

A few years ago, a Spanish psychologist and his team of researchers asked about 700 students to decide whether they would kill one person to save five. It was a version of the classic trolley dilemma: A small train is trundling toward five people on the tracks who will perish in the crash; you see this from your perch on a footbridge and realize you can save them by shoving one of your fellow pedestrians—a fat man—off the bridge, into the train’s path. Do you do it? …

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Can I Get a Better Way to Order Food?

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye

A couple of years ago, the BBC published an essay on that staple of British journalism, the terribleness of Americanisms polluting the mother tongue. The Beeb invited readers to send in their own pet peeves and got such a response that it published a list of the 50 that were sent in most often. The top five, in reverse order, were:

  • Deplane.
  • 24/7.
  • Two-time or three-time, as in “two-time award winner” (though I don’t see how else that could be said).
  • Least worst option.
  • And the N0.1 m…
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New Grub Street

George_Gissing

George Gissing

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The new paradigm for creative folk, that is. Dispense with jobs, with their soul-deadening cubicles and time clocks (metaphorical or literal) and bosses looking over your shoulders—but also, admittedly, with their clockwork paychecks and medical benefits—and become your own brand. That meant establishing yourself online: with a blog or social-media presence or Huffington Post column. None of these offered any remuneration, and mounting a…

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People Who Died

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Elaine May and Mike Nichols

“Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
Those are people who died, died
They were all my friends, and they died.”

—Jim Carroll, “People Who Died”

I am getting so sick of people dying. I don’t speak of my friends—as Jim Carroll (1949-2009) so unflinchingly and memorably did in his 1980 song—but of writers, artists, musicians, actors,  journalists,  broadcasters, and other public figures whose work and prese…

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The List Lilt

Stephen Potter

Stephen Potter

I told you about vocal fry. And you know all about uptalk? The inflection that was first discussed by Robin Lakoff in 1976, that was given its name by James Gorman in a 1993 New York Times article, and that continues to rouse the ire of right-thinking people everywhere?

Well, here’s a new one, which I started noticing a couple of years ago, among friends, colleagues, students, and National Public Radio interviewees (basically, my audio universe). It’s a way of voicing a list as if…

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Idiom Strong

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Residents of Barrett, Pennsylvania, sold t-shirts to help local police defray costs associated with a recent manhunt.

Back in September, Barrett Township, in Pennsylvania, was the center of a  manhunt for an armed fugitive and adopted the motto “Barrett Proud.” When the suspect was caught, in October, the entire region appropriated it and dubbed itself “Pocono Proud.

This week The New York Times reported that after an 11-year-old Indiana boy, Calvin Clark, suffered a severe head injury in a foo…