Category Archives: Varia


German for Beginners

Refugees arrive in Germany

Refugees, mainly from Afghanistan, arrive in Bavaria. (Photo by Falk Heller/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

MUNICH — Spende, reads the sign leaning against a tent outside Munich’s main train station. Donations. Items needed for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been pouring into Germany in recent months. Germany, the final destination — the refugees hope — of long, arduous, often heartbreaking journeys from Afghanistan, Somalia and, in greatest numbers, Syria.

Bottled water
Baby formul…


Happy Birthday, Lingua Franca!

Slightly more than four years and a thousand posts ago, at the behest of the editor Heidi Landecker at The Chronicle of Higher Education, this Lingua Franca blog came into being. Since that time, day after day, our motley crew has mused, elucidated, queried, uncovered, advertised, challenged, and pontificated about language, more or less as Heidi and Liz McMillen, The Chronicle’s editor,  had envisioned. And you, dear readers, have responded with everything from dissertations of your own to com…


Sex and Verbs and Rock ’n’ Roll

coastersLast week I promised to explain why I was recently browsing in a little German grammar book I have owned since 1963.

Here’s the straight truth. I have been invited to lecture on data and theory next March at a conference sponsored by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, Germany. And I’m ashamed. Not because I’ll be lecturing in English — that’s the norm for international academic conferences, so no shame there. And yet I have something to expiate.

My German is barely a smattering…


Love Game

Serena WilliamsOnce a year, Flushing Meadows in New York turns into a 22-ring circus of tennis, and people start asking me, as a lifelong tennis player, what all those words mean. I wasn’t going to write about tennis lingo in this blog, but a new acronym in the sport put me over the edge. So here goes.

The name of the sport itself seems to have come from the French tenez, or “take,” which is purportedly what the server used to shout before firing the ball cross-court to begin the point. The game we play th…


Best Linguistic Jokes of the 2015 Fringe


Jo Brand delivered Geoff Pullum’s No. 4

August is gone, and with it the Edinburgh Festival and its fabulous Fringe. The grand orchestral concert with fireworks over the castle was on Monday night, the climax of a perfect summer day. All the most ambitious comedians in the country are now checking out of their rented accommodation and heading for the train station or the airport. And I have promises to keep.

At the end of my July 22 post I made a pledge: “In September I will let you know about th…


The Gray Lady Gets Jiggy

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart: “If you smell something, say something”

August 8 was a momentous day, at least in my geeky world. That was because The New York Times decided “bullshit” was Fit To Print. Twice before in its 164-year history (in 1977 and 2007), the paper quoted someone as saying the word, and it has appeared on the paper’s website, but its first straight-up print appearance, with no quotation marks, was in this sentence from Neil Genzlinger’s article about Jon Stewart’s final broadcast: “He delivere…


Diagramming Trump

According to “steveknows,” commenting on the Slate article “Help Us Diagram This Sentence by Donald Trump!” I have been punked. I don’t care. Gertrude Stein said there was nothing more exciting than diagramming sentences, and she wasn’t all that far from the truth. As with the claim that Molly Bloom’s soliloquy is the longest sentence in the English language, calling Donald Trump’s explosion of language a sentence stretches the meaning of the word sentence. Verbal speech contains no punctuation,…


On @Tejucole and #Prompts


Teju Cole
Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

The use of the word prompt to mean incitement or cue has probably been around for 500 years or so, but its use in a narrower sense, as an instruction or directions for a writing assignment in class, is new to me. I swear I hadn’t even heard it until maybe a couple of years ago. “Professor, what is the prompt for next week?”

“Did you check the syllabus? Take this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus,” and rewrite it as if you were a reporter filing a …


Hyphenation, Carbonation, and X-Rays

The catcher and sage Yogi Berra was allegedly once asked if the name of the bottled chocolate beverage he endorsed was hyphenated. “No ma’am,” he is said to have replied. “It’s not even carbonated.”

Yogi was wrong on the first point, as you can see from this image.


But his confusion is understandable, so thorny can the subject of hyphens be. Even the Yoo-hoo folks appear to be hedging their bets, judging from the tininess of the hyphen on the label.

Hyphens are on my mind because a physician fr…


‘Academic Interest’

Sunaura Taylor

Sunaura Taylor and Judith Butler go for a walk.

In a video that is available online, you can watch Judith Butler, philosopher and winner of a bad writing award, speaking to a crowd at Occupy Wall Street. It is a short speech, pointed and incantatory, and Butler is brilliant.

A wonderful innovation of the Occupy Wall Street movement was the use of the human microphone — the name given to the body of the audience repeating, amplifying, each statement made by the speaker. This practice was probab…